Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fieldwork in the Terai: Part One

While Brian headed west to Pokhara to meet the family of a Tibetan refugee (check out Part One and Part Two of his report), I traveled south to Nepal's Terai region. Unlike Pokhara, with its Himalayan views and lakeside retreats, the Terai is no resort area. Tourists typically go to the Terai only for a short safari in Chitwan National Park or for a pilgrimage to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.

I suspect that the Terai's general lack of appeal has much to do with the climate and topography. Bordering northern India, the Terai's flat plains are known for being colder and windier than Kathmandu in the winter and hotter and more humid in the spring and summer. Add in a landscape dominated by agriculture and cows, and the Terai sounds a lot like Nebraska, except with palm trees and malarial mosquitoes.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Frequently called the "grain basket of Nepal," the Terai churns out staple grains such as rice, wheat, and corn, as well as other crops like sugarcane and tobacco. Its fertile lands make it the most productive region of Nepal, and its flat topography allows for an impressive road network of freshly paved straightaways that connect villages and small cities.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Nepal's population density is accordingly highest in the Terai. For all of these reasons -- fertile terrain, good infrastructure, and dense clusters of people -- the Terai's economy has flourished more than in Nepal's hill and mountain regions. Microfinance, too, has the greatest reach in the Terai. Although the region has only 48% of Nepal's population, it receives 72% of the country's total microfinance loans.

Despite its economic productivity relative to the rest of Nepal, the Terai faces serious challenges in social issues and political unrest.

Many of the social issues derive from the caste system that still persists in Nepal. Although caste is often conflated with a more harmless designation of ethnic groups, there remains a distinct untouchable caste, the Dalits. Typically landless, likely very poor, and definitively marginalized, many Terai Dalits serve as the laborers for back-breaking farm work. Nepal has instituted social assistance programs for Dalits, such as child grants, but due to several challenges, including a citizenship requirement, many Dalits do not receive these benefits.

Then there are the political challenges. For the last few years the Terai's Madhesi group has claimed marginalization at the hands of Nepal's government and has used violence to call attention to their plight, including a rash of bus bombings in April.

The Terai in two adjectives? "Hot and dangerous!"

The only reason to travel there at the end of April, when temperatures already reach well into the 90s Fahrenheit, is for work. And so it was a short-term consulting assignment on social protection programs that brought me to the Terai last week. Don't worry -- our consultant team took care to avoid the really hotbed areas. Although the heat was uncomfortable, the most dangerous thing I encountered was probably this roadside lunch stop.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

And I survived that too. Stay tuned tomorrow for more about my time in the Terai.

No comments: