Development in Nepal: Keep head on horizon and hands on land

Published On: June 4, 2021 07:05 AM NPT By: Dr Prabhu Budhathoki

The gist of the book is that Nepal should embrace the green economy development model to benefit from its vast forests, beautiful landscapes, and water resources.

Currently, the world is battling against the painful COVID-19 pandemic. Also, more devastating climate-induced disasters are in the offing if the rising global temperature is not contained soon. This means, human society may fall from a health pandemic fry pan to a fire of climate disaster if not tackled timely and properly. The root causes of both COVID -19 pandemic and the growing climate related disasters have one thing in common – our myopic understanding about economic development and the development pathway we have been pursuing for decades if not century. We must rethink!

Development is a multi-dimensional issue. Proper understanding of different facets of development and integrating them appropriately for making good economic policies and development planning is always a daunting task. In other words, finding the right balance between economic, social and environmental issues in development programs is always challenging in a developing country like Nepal.

Equally hard is finding a comprehensive scholarships and literatures which can provide ‘consilience of knowledge’ as articulated by Edward Wilson, a renowned scientist and writer for the harmony of economy and ecology in human actions.  More specifically, in the context of developing countries like Nepal, finding comprehensive literatures on development and environmental issues is like searching for an oasis.

Prof Keshav Bhattarai, a USA-based scholar of Nepali descent and his colleague Prof Dennis Conway must have realized this knowledge gap while deciding to write ‘Contemporary Environmental Problems in Nepal - Geographic Perspectives’. Probably, the two brilliant academicians should also have been inspired by Toni Morrison’s bold advice ‘if there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it’.

By looking at the title, this book appears like an environmental dossier. But in reality, one can find it as a concise development encyclopedia of Nepal with data packed with well-interwoven topics on political economy, demography and socio-economy; roads, transport and urban planning; water resources and hydropower; agriculture, forestry and tourism; climate change and environment, geography and location specific land use planning. The beauty of this book is that it examines Nepal’s development and environmental issues in the global and South Asian context which helps widen the understanding of environmental issues in this globalized and interconnected world.

With nearly 800 pages with well-connected seven chapters and more than 2,000 useful references, this book nicely presents a comprehensive assessment of Nepal’s environmental challenges from spatial and temporal perspectives’ which is vital for sustainable development planning. Readers can find a brilliant review about the melting Himal, bleeding mountains and hills; and drying Tarai and Madhesh.

The authors claim that this could be the first unique work which brings environmental issues together with geopolitical, demographic, and economic conditions of Nepal after the restructuring of the country. It looks genuine. Additionally, the book presents very location-specific details to large scale geographical and socio-political perspectives of these issues. One can acquire knowledge of issues ranging from a small hidden hole to horizon scales. The zoomed view reminds us of the Vedic approach of enquiry to find the true Truth - Neti Neti whereas wide-angle perspectives reflect Aristotle’s view "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".

We can also find many critical observations on the causes of environmental deteriorations and decelerating economic development in the country. Similar to a Swedish saying ‘in a good book the best is between the lines’, readers can find sprinkles of sharp opinions on our political parties, geopolitics, neighboring countries, aid and international organizations, national economic policies and development planning. By reading this book, one can easily comprehend that the increasing collusion between the existing ‘big brotherly’ attitude of India and Chinese aggressive geo-strategic interests will pose a real challenge in the coming days to implement big infrastructure projects in Nepal. The current delay in the implementation of MCC and BRI is its clear indication. Similarly, the book helps the reader understand the effects of ‘beggar thy neighbor’ policies of the bordering countries in the national economy of a small country. Being a country sandwiched between two big economies, betterment of both economy and environment of Nepal will largely depend on the cooperation of the two giants. For the larger and long-term benefits of the region, the current ‘locked’ situation of Nepal should be changed to ‘linked’ situation. This book sheds some light on this issue as well. 

The information available in the book will be valuable for policy makers, planners, researchers and students interested in better understanding the development and environmental issues of Nepal. No doubt, a holistic understanding is the key to address systemic problems the country has been facing for a long time.  

One of the main reasons why politicians, policy makers and planners should appreciate this book is its honest, critical and comprehensive analysis of Nepal’s development issues as well as suggestions to solve them. The statistics and lucidities presented in the book help us understand why we need to follow climate resilience and human welfare centered environmentally benign development pathway. It articulates the need of proper balance or maintaining reasonable tradeoffs between economic growth, social equity, and environmental health for the sustainable development of a country. The gist of the book is that Nepal should embrace the green economy development model to benefit from its vast forests, beautiful landscapes, and water resources.

Similarly, the ecosystem service-based approach is emphasized for the conservation of Churia and for the sustainable flow of ecosystem services to sustain life and livelihoods resources in Tarai. Seven mantras are proposed for the sustainable economic development of Nepal. These mantras can help address the challenge of radically raising people’s standards of living while achieving a sustainable footprint. They emphasize the need for location-specific information to develop ‘production model at different agro-climatic conditions’ and ‘monitoring of contemporary environmental issues.’ Geography affects environment and environmental services and so geographical knowledge is necessary for better environment planning and management.

Like Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal says ‘the struggle of long-term economic development in South Asia will be won or lost in agriculture’, the authors also insist better management of land-based resources and sustainable farming for the economic development and environmental protection in Nepal. However, they warn that climate change and migration of working age population have been two major threats to sustainable agriculture development in Nepal. It is also revealed that despite an increase in forest coverage in the hills and mountains, the ecosystem services are decreasing due to increasing abandonment of farm lands. There is also concern that we may miss many SDGs and normal ‘demographic transition’ path without achieving prosperity in the country.

The authors strongly stress the ecologically inseparability of the Himal, Pahad and Tarai-Madhes and advise revision of the current boundaries of the provinces based upon geographic watersheds in order to avoid a chaotic situation for water and other resources sharing in the future. A strong relationship between Nepal and its southern neighbor India is also desired to address the contemporary environmental issues as two countries are tied with ecosystem services.

The book also draws attention on growing environmental destruction and development victims in different parts of the country due to politically-motivated ‘bulldozer engineering’ practices in the hills and mountains and eco-political battle to exploit natural resources in the churia/siwaliks and Tarai. Dozer development is becoming an ‘inconvenient truth’ of Nepal’s current development practices.

This monograph seems to have been written in different times; a revised version needs to have data harmonization. Despite having some weaknesses such as repetitions, data gaps and subjective statements, the book can be a good reference for any person interested in the environment and development issues of Nepal.  I hope this book helps society to realize ‘ecology is our permanent economy,’ a very powerful slogan of Sunder Lal Bahuguna who started the globally-acclaimed chipko (tree hugging) movement in the Gadhawal hills of India. If successful in developing a green mindset of the readers, the book will also be a great tribute to ‘Brichhya Mitra’ Bahuguna who died recently and many other who have devoted their lives for the care of this planet and its inhabitants. (The reviewer is a former member of the National Planning Commission, Nepal.)


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