Maoist strikes spell doom for farmers

Published on May 22, 2004 12:21 PM IST

Wrecking a blow to Nepal's struggling farmers, thousands of litres of milk and tons of vegetables are decaying due to frequent strikes by Maoist rebels.

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PTI | ByIndo-Asian News Service, Kathmandu

In a belly blow to Nepal's struggling farmers, thousands of litres of milk and tons of vegetables are decaying in remote rural areas due to frequent strikes by Maoist rebels that are blocking transportation.

Farmers are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars daily due to protests by Maoists, whose eight-year-long insurgency has claimed around 9,000 lives and ravaged the countryside, where the guerrillas hold sway in several parts, OneWorld reports.

On May 14, around 300 frustrated farmers from Bhandara, in western Nepal's Chitawan district, took to the streets, dumping 500 quintals of fresh vegetables worth nearly $15,000 on the main road.

They were protesting a rebel-imposed weeklong ban on cargo movement that halted the movement of produce to the capital Kathmandu. Huge mounds of cauliflowers, cabbages, ladyfingers et al scattered on the road bore eloquent testimony to the cultivators' plight.

Due to a lack of cold storage facilities, farmers cannot even preserve the vegetables.

Jeevan Gopal Shrestha, a vegetable farmer in Dhading district neighbouring Kathmandu valley, complained: "Whenever anybody calls a strike, farmers bleed. As we don't have infrastructure like cold storage, fresh vegetables decay if not sold on time."

Chitawan district alone produces over $140,000 worth of fresh vegetables every day. Farmer Chudamani Bartaula rued: "We were compelled to dump our precious vegetables as we can't take them to the market for sale."

Lamentably, some of the farmers who dumped their produce had cultivated it in fields taken on lease, and were saddled with mounting debts.

Keshab Badal, former agriculture minister and president of All Nepal Peasants Association (ANPA), the country's 300,000-strong farmers' body, said: "This is not a petty matter. No farmer would dump his hard-earned produce unless he was very, very angry."

Badal warned the dumping was just the beginning of a snowballing farmers' agitation. ANPA is supporting a political agitation against the king in the capital, where farmers' issues will be raised.

Farmer Prem Prasad Panta demanded that vegetable-laden vehicles be allowed unrestricted movement, like ambulances.

Farmers in Chitwan were not the only ones affected by the strike. For a week beginning May 10, the Maoists imposed blockades in most parts of Nepal to prevent the flow of cargo, cutting off villages from district headquarters.

And from Tuesday, they declared a three-day general strike, forcing educational institutes and businesses to shut down.

Thanks to the strike, farmers in Nepal's Makwanpur district, famed for its high quality vegetables, had to abandon their crops. Likewise in Kavre district neighbouring Kathmandu, 120,000 litres of milk went waste daily.

In the past too, while enforcing traffic blockades across Nepal, Maoists have bombed a number of passenger buses and trucks transporting goods. They have also threatened cargo carriers against transporting goods.

Though the government has promised to provide security on request for vehicles during a strike, most avoid travelling for fear of the insurgents.

Since agriculture is subsistence-based, Nepalese people work on farms only for certain periods annually, leaving their villages for places like Kathmandu and neighbouring countries to seek employment during the rest of the year.

The frequent protests are particularly hard on daily wage earners and agricultural producers. Chandra Bahadur KC, a daily labourer in Kathmandu, said: "During strikes we often sleep with hungry stomachs because of lack of earnings."

Harihar Tandukar, general secretary of the Nepal Dairy Association, revealed Kathmandu is able to meet only 40 percent of its milk needs of 140,000 litres during blockades and strikes. Vegetable prices too spiral during such protests.

Problems for farmers and crops could spell disaster for Nepal, where at least 76 percent of the 23-million population is engaged in the agricultural sector, which accounts for 40 percent of gross domestic product.

Shankar Prasad Sharma, vice chairman of the National Planning Commission, said: "This year, Nepal achieved an economic growth of over four percent despite insecurity and insurgency only because the agricultural sector grew by over three percent due to favourable weather."

Badal, who is also a member of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, feels the root of the problem lies in the country's feudal land ownership structure.

Nearly 19 percent of Nepal's farmers -- around one million people -- still do not own any land and so any obstructions to trade hit them the hardest.

Badal said: "Farmers are the most affected by the insurgency. Hundreds lost their lives, thousands fled their homes and thousands watched their fields become barren land as only elderly people, women and children are left in many villages."

According to the Human Rights Yearbook 2004 published by the Informal Sector Service Centre, after political workers and police personnel, farmers topped the list of victims killed during the conflict.

In 2003, 139 agricultural workers were killed by the Maoists, and 153 by government forces.

Agriculture is crucial for Nepal. A report prepared by the industry, commerce and supplies ministry with help from the World Bank said: "The agriculture sector is central to the livelihood of Nepalese. For 90 percent of the poor, i.e. households in the bottom 25 percent of the consumption scale, agriculture is the only income generating activity."

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