Was Karnali always like this - poor, deprived, and backward? The answer is ‘No’. The Karnali Kingdom was prosperous and cultured until the 18th century from the 9th century. This can be sensed through the region's folk songs and stories which have been transferred from generation to generation and are still in existence in the oral form. Humla, in particular, was a prosperous land as early as two generations ago
The Karnali region has become ambiguous due to its geographical representation because what is known as Karnali has changed over time as per the changes in the state regime. State restructuring after the promulgation of Nepal’s Constitution of 2015 has demarcated ten districts - Dailekh, Dolpo, Humla, Jajarkot, Jumla, Kalikot, Mugu, Salyan, Surkhet, and western Rukum - under the Karnali Province, and Karnali here refers to those 10 districts.
The Karnali region is one of the most backward areas of Nepal. The Human Development Index (HDI) is 0.445 as per the Nepal Human Development Report 2014, and it is the lowest compared to other parts of the country. The Karnali region is also known as the region with food deficiency, backwardness, and lack of necessary facilities like roads, electricity, health, and education. In aggregate, it is one of the deprived regions of Nepal. These features give rise to one question: Was Karnali always like this - poor, deprived, and backward?
Karnali Kingdom was prosperous and cultured until the 18th century from the 9th century. The prosperity of the Karnali region can be sensed through the region's folk songs and stories that are still in existence in the oral form, which are transferred from generation to generation. Karnali was indeed a thriving region with immense potential for not only her development but the bordering regions. There are various contemporary researches on the backwardness of the Karnali region. Among them, the end of caravan barter trade with Tibet, replacement of Tibetan salt by iodized salt, loss of pasture land in Tibet, anti-China operation by Khampa from the Nepali territory, lack of national priority of Nepal for the region after unification, break-down of its indigenous governing system and exclusion from the mainstream development effort, inability of national policies to address the need of the region are considered as the major causes. Getting specific to Humla, it was a prosperous land even before two generations. The upper Humla people were primarily dependent on animal husbandry. The seasonal migration was a compulsion for pasture/grazing in the Tibetan plateau for some months a year. Such seasonal migrations opened an opportunity for trade, and the seasonal migrations of large herds of sheep and goats provided the transport facilities for trade across the Himalayas. Such caravan trade fulfilled each side's basic needs. The trade items got widespread, and the trade transaction increased. As a result, the high Himalayas people were economically prosperous. The traditional barter trade system disruption emerged after Nepal signed a treaty with the People's Republic of China (PRC) that dismissed all the previous understanding and agreements with China and Tibet.
Further, an "Agreement on Trade and other Related Matters" was signed in 1956 that laid the foundation for Nepal's new bilateral relations with China. The agreement limited the mobility of people in border districts to 30 kilometers on each side of the border, and the visit's duration was for a month. Finally, a boundary protocol that was signed on January 23, 1963, integrating the border treaty, began to end the cross-border use of pastureland, which drastically affected the communities' livelihoods close to the border.
According to Chhakka Bahadur Lama, a member of parliament from Humla (2017), there were two provisions in the agreement that was not beneficial to the people of Limi, Humla; 1) Nepal needed to reduce the number of livestock gradually, and 2) Nepal needed to develop grazing land within Nepal itself. The grazing agreement with China ended in 1990 and never got renewed. The agreement prohibited the people from Humla from taking animals for grazing in Tibet permanently. As a result, many farmers were compelled to sell their cattle and change their professions. This agreement was the precursor to the people's economic decline dependent on farming and livestock in Humla.
The difficulties and backwardness of the Karnali region and Humla, particularly, is an unpleasant reality that did not exist in the past and should not be in the future. The people living in the Himalayan region of Nepal are trapped between Nepal's government's marginalization and Tibet's discrimination. China has a skeptical view of the Himalayan region's communities, associated with Tibet and, most importantly, the Dalai Lama. I went to Lhasa in 2017 with a few friends from Humla. In the Lhasa Gonggar Airport (LXA), the concerned authorities interrogated my friends from Humla for speaking the Tibetan language. The airport authorities asked them how they learned the Tibetan language. Airport authorities searched their handbags and scanned their cellphones. They searched the whole body more than regular security checks. Similarly, my surname is Lama; friends told me that it might be challenging to get a TAR, China entry visa. Here, associating the Lama surname with Tibet and the Dalai Lama is no less than an immature and ignorant perception.
Humla adjoins Tibet, and it is common for the people of Northern Humla or people of the Himalayan region to speak the Tibetan language, just like people living in Tarai speak the Hindi language. It is ignorance and discrimination that Nepalis speaking the Tibetan language in the Himalayan region and the Hindi language in the Tarai region are considered Tibetans and Indians, respectively. Nepalis speaking Tibetan as their first language and having names similar to Tibetan names face difficulties to enter Tibet and other parts of China. There are many monasteries in Nepal's Himalayan region associated with Tibet, and having a monastery does not mean that they are Tibetans or associated with the Dalai Lama. The Chinese authorities should understand and distinguish between people with Tibet's political linkage and the Dalai Lama and the local people of the Himalayan region of Nepal who are not a part of such politics. Thus, the people of the Himalayan region of Nepal who speak the Tibetan language follow Buddhism and have a Buddhist name that needs to be appropriately treated by Nepal and China.
The government of Nepal has always marginalized the people of the Himalayan region of Nepal, like Humla. Even the later political changes of 1990 and 2006 did not bring many changes to Karnali. Instead, the region further remained the most neglected one. There were many instances when the names of the people kept in their language were changed to typical Khas language names while making the citizenship certificate. The living example is the name of the current (elected in 2017) parliamentarian, Chhakka Bahadur Lama. In my personal communication with him, he told me that his real name is Tshewang Lama, but his name was changed while making his citizenship certificate. The authority told him that his name was difficult to pronounce and doesn't sound Nepali; so, he changed the name Tshewang to Chhakka. This is just one example of an incident and it shows how the government is neglecting and decimating the people living in the rural and border areas of Nepal.
There are also many kinds of valuable herbs in Humla and other parts of the Karnali region, but their in-depth medicinal values are yet to be explored. The rivers and rivulets in Humla and the Karnali region have enormous potential for hydropower development and water-induced industry, and such resources have been almost not utilized yet. Humla has enormous potential to be promoted as a tourist destination for several purposes, including trekking, cultural tours, glacier expedition, and academic research on anthropology, geology, and other disciplines. Humla was opened to tourists in the 1990s by the Government of Nepal. However, even after two decades, Humla is significantly less visible on Nepal's tourism map. Humla still remains under a restricted area where the free flow of tourists is not allowed. Tourists are required to get a specific permit to visit. Thus, although many low-budget tourists would like to see Humla, they can't afford it due to the requirement of permits and expensive flight tickets.
Despite being blessed with immense natural and cultural diversity, Humla and the Karnali region are among Nepal's poorest and least developed regions. Life in the Himalayan region is very hard for people seeking material well-being. These places remained untouched by the modern world for many years, including a lack of necessary infrastructures like transportation and communication, and still, the situation has not significantly improved. Thus, the Nepal government should respect the cultural practices of people of such places and also distribute resources on an equity basis. Similarly, it is required to upgrade the Hilsa border to a trade border, the formal opening of the Namkha border, and establishing a quarantine and testing center at the Hilsa border is the urgent need of Humla. Nepal has diverse ecological zones, along with varied cultures and practices. Thus, the national plan and policies like budget, development plans, and other policies should incorporate different places' ecological and cultural diversity.
(The article is based on the author’s trip to Mt Kailash via Humla in 2017 and his personal conversations with a number of people.)