Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hometown Story



I am writing these lines from Damak, my parents’ home in eastern Nepal. I thought my winter vacation here would provide me with the much-needed relief from the bouts of bad news that usually plague us all in our capital city.

To be honest, there is no running away from appalling news; not anywhere, not in this once-dwindling town of Damak, bustling with life these days.

Even before I left Kathmandu about two weeks ago, Damak briefly stole the national (bad) headlines. On January 2, four boys—three of them teenagers—gang-raped a girl deep inside the bushes of the Himalayan Tea Gardens that so picturesquely adorn the western spreads of this city of 80,000 residents.

I arrived here expecting to witness something like “OccupyDamakToo” protests; and indeed, there at least was one rally held in solidarity with the folks at the Baluwatar sit-in.

In terms of national policy or media spotlight, small or mid-sized towns like Damak remain condemned to obscurity, or to oddity. The last time I heard about this city in the national media was years ago when some people died of a cobra bite, or when hundreds of houses were swamped by flooding in the Ratuwa river.

This time a local told me on arrival that three elderly people had died in the past few weeks from burns received from winter fire stoves. These echoed the cold-induced deaths in Saptari and Siraha, making headlines nationally and internationally.

Although in its share of bad news this city might look like a miniature country, it is an aberration in many ways and its story, like those of many other slowly emerging towns, is far from fully developed and coherent.

Damak (not to be confused with a village in northern Hungary, or a fashion company in the UK) has been a municipality in Nepal’s Jhapa district for the last 30 years. Today, it is among the 99 municipalities (58 until July 2011) in the country.

I started with the name itself, for never before did I ever contemplate on what the adopted hometown of my parents and relatives actually meant. I have never lived in this city for more than a month in a row. Only occasionally do I visit my folks down here, earning the wrath of local acquaintances or thought leaders who rush to lament that I forgot to return to my “hometown”.

Somehow, the rape incident and the cold wave changed something in my itinerary this time around. I decided to dedicate this column to this provincial town, to explore the story of this city. How does it converge or diverge from the story of the country?

I believe Damak is representative of the majority of the country’s municipalities that are municipalities mainly because they have been so for quite some time now; adding to the burdens (and sins) of our urbanization that currently is pacing faster than any country in South Asia. Sadly, in Nepal, the size of population (20,000 required in Tarai) and sometimes the level of political influence, not the quality of infrastructure or services, determines the graduation of a VDC into a municipality.

Growth prospects in tune of a truly modern city were never too bright for this traditionally agricultural (is)land, surrounded by, and seasonally pounded on both sides by two rivers, Ratuwa in the east and Mawa in the west.

The beginning of Damak is murky. Some experts say the word Damak is derived from a combination of words referring to a swamp or marshland in the Dhimal language. The marsh serves as a powerful metaphor of a breeding ground for many species, and Damak once upon a time was full of marshes.

Today, this has been fully turned into a breeding ground for humans, with 3.97 percent increase in population annually. The city had 52,771 people 10 years ago, today there are 28,000 more. Add to that the 50,000 plus Bhutanese refugees still living in the northern region. They are part of the municipality’s socio-cultural dynamics, prone to security threats or social conflicts.

Agricultural lands are vanishing fast with real estate encroachments taking place everywhere. The haphazard growth has no respect for distinct residential, industrial and natural areas that characterize modern cities.

The town today is a bustling provincial hub thanks largely to the continued flow of people from villages, the sudden migration prompted by internal strife in Madhesh as well as eastern Pahad, and to the booming remittance economy.

I caught up with Rajesh Paudel, the chief executive officer of the municipality. A question that pesters many officials or experts continues to nag Paudel. For example, has the absence of elected representatives in municipal councils made any substantive difference in the city’s works? He suspects that with civil servants at the helm locally, it is probable that the outcome has been better.

The usual budget constraints, understaffing, slow progress in infrastructure development (a ring road and key highway projects), management of traffic, garbage and sewage, limited drinking water supply, river embankments, squatter settlements, public recreational spaces, and above all, lack of a long term master plan for the city, remain key challenges.

For every 1,000 people in Damak the municipality has less than 00.70 employee; the more the reason to emphasize self-governance at the grassroots level. However, despite the city’s physical growth, Damak remains weaker than the average municipality in its “own source revenue” per capita and local taxes. In 2064/65, 43.62 percent of its total revenue of Rs. 91,422,245 came from government grants.

Consequently, broadening the local tax base is another future area of action. But as the former deputy mayor Lok Bahadur Dhimal put it, taxpayers haven’t been fully informed about the mutual benefits of this social contract. He emphasizes promoting agriculture-based industries in a municipality that has 70 percent population working in the agriculture sector.

Another recurrent public concern is the security situation. I met Ganga Rai, a female police officer at the local Area Police Post. Attitudinal change based on gender equality, she said, was slow in rural areas but it was beginning to manifest in urban centers. Local cases of violence against women have not increased as feared in recent times, she added, but they are reported more frequently than before because increasingly women were breaking social taboos and reporting the abuses and the media were also covering them more frequently.

There are other positives. Paudel noted that Damak has emerged as a “model” in people’s participation in development works. Many of the roads have been built by people’s own initiative and half the monetary contributions for the projects are made by people themselves, with the matching funds coming from the municipality.

Another point of pride is the compilation of a comprehensive demographic database on all the households of the municipality. It has been a long beginning to arrive at this basic script of the story of this town.

Slowly, it seems, people here, especially the youth, are beginning to display some serious measure of confidence about the future of their place. Little acts of entrepreneurship are becoming more common than before. A recent trip took me to a 20-bigaha farm to the south, operated collectively by a group of migrant workers who returned home. Govinda Neupane, 50, one of its co-owners, perhaps best typifies the future of agriculture-based industries that the city is hoping to benefit from. He owns 15 cows today, but with your support, is determined to retire only when he rears 100.

Publishhed Jan 16, 2013 in Republica


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