Tsewang Lama, or Chakka Bahadur Lama, as his Nepalicized name reads, has been at the centre of Humla’s politics since 1991, when he first became MP. Friends in Kathmandu tell me he’s an ‘interesting’ politician, and I am unable to get the reference until I meet him in Halji, one of the three Limi valley villages, during the Cross-Border Travel and Trade Fair. We speak on the roof of the 10th century Rinchenling monastery, where he tells me that at heart he is a social scientist. He began his career assisting Western anthropologists who started coming to Humla starting in the 1970s. He rattles off the names of the scholars with ease, before telling me about his book on the oral histories of Humla and Kailash region, Kailash Mandala.
Lama is an unusual politician by Nepali standards. He became MP in 1991 under the auspices of Samyukta Janamorcha Nepal, the Communist outfit then fronted by Baburam Bhattarai. He was also assistant minister for local development in the royalist cabinet appointed by King Gyanendra in 2005, before rejoining the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) as a central committee member. When the party refused to offer him a ticket for the 2017 parliamentary elections, he stood as an independent rebel candidate from Humla, was expelled from the party, and won the election by 47 votes. Beyond politics, Lama’s job as social researcher saw him collaborating on several documentaries on Humla for Western television. In 2010, he spearheaded the road-building contract between Lapche Pass on the Nepal-China border and Salli Khola, only the second road to be built in the remote district.
We spoke about a range of issues Limi valley and Humla faced, Kathmandu’s lack of understanding about mountain ecologies, and his vision for the district. Edited excerpts below:
Tell us about Limi valley. What has your research told you about its history and culture?
Humla currently has seven village municipalities. A trans-Himalayan valley, Limi comes under ward number six in Namkha village municipality. In Humla, the trans-Himalayan boundary is Nyalu Pass at around 5000 m. The Limi river flows westward to join the Karnali near Hilsa after flowing northwards.
Limi’s geography matches that of the Tibetan plateau. It is not an exact replica, but Limi is also not a part of the Nepali Himalayas. I like to call Limi a crossbreed. Culturally too, our religion matches that of Tibet. The Tibetan Buddhist sect of Drikung Kagyu is followed most here. All three villages in Limi follow this sect, and Halji is the biggest village.
What about Limi’s history?
Halji’s Rinchenling monastery is probably the oldest monastery in western Nepal, as well as the biggest. In olden times, the monastery was intricately linked to Tibet. There’s a monastery just before Kailash, the Gyangdrag monastery, which was damaged by the Cultural Revolution but still exists. The main Lama of the sect ruled from this monastery, and Limi, because of its religious affiliation, was ruled from there. Politically, however, Limi came under Nepal. So there was a sort of dual rule [in this valley]. Religious tax would be paid in Tibet, but the land tax would be paid in Nepal… [the] connectivity to Nepal is difficult, however, If I need to go to Kathmandu, I will first have to go to Taklakot in China, cross the border back into Darchula [permitted the border is open], cross over into India carrying a special border areas permit, travel down to Mahendra Nagar, and then finally take the bus to Kathmandu. There’s always a feeling here [in Limi] that they are more connected to Tibet than to Nepal. When the border was open, travel back and forth was common. Today, the border is restricted.
When did the border become restricted?
It was closed after China took over Tibet [in 1950]. In those days, the easiest route to go to Tibet was to go via Salli Khola, climb Nyalu Pass, walk along Talung Khola before crossing Lapche Pass into Tibet. All livestock herders used this route. Wool and salt came from Tibet. Wheat flour and rice was sent from here. Limi’s grasslands were excellent in the non-winter months. Above Talung Khola, on the way to Lapche, is a grassland known as Marjung. There’d be alternate annual haats in Marjung and in Tak Khola in Tibet. The grazing grounds would also alternate every year. In Nepal, haats would be held at Marjung and Chyapolung. One would go to Kailash Mansarovar via Limi valley, following the trade caravans. It’s only after China diverted the route via Hilsa and Khojarnath that the route changed.
Limi’s route [to Kailash and Tibet] is an ancient route, and because the Nepal government and the District Development Committee [at the time] did not pay attention to it, I decided to build a road downwards from Lapche. I could see that this valley is an extension of the Tibetan plateau; I could see that around Talung Khola there was no need to cut trees or blast through rocks, and we could easily build a road there. I brought in a bulldozer via Kathmandu and Tatopani border to Lapche. I spoke to Purang county officials and the Chinese ambassador and asked them for help. The bulldozer finally entered Nepal, and the border was opened as well.
When was this?
This was around 6-7 years ago.
Was the Lapche border closed before that?
Yes, completely. Limi residents have old relationships with those across the border, called chhopas, or nomads. But as soon as anyone crossed the border, there’d be a fine. Thirty years ago, the fine was 5,000 yuan. Folks would be arrested and put in jail. It was only after my request that they approved a few benefits for this valley. We invited [Chinese officials] to see our villages. In Nepal, in Limi, Tibetan culture as it existed before the Cultural Revolution has survived.
Today, Tibet has changed from a traditional caravan-based barter economy to a capitalist commodity economy. It was remote till yesterday, but it’s prosperous today. China has made highways on the plateau. We should also be allowed to use those highways. We should be allowed to send our supplies from Kathmandu to Limi using their highways. We need to inform the Chinese about our culture, our identity, and tell them we are Nepalis, not Tibetan refugees. They think that just because our surnames have ‘Lama’ in them, we follow the Dalai Lama.
We organized this fair to give continuation to our informal trans-boundary meeting at Hilsa last year. We wanted to formalize our talks this year to resolve a few outstanding issues.
Also Read: The mountain people of northern Humla
Have Chinese officials come to Limi then?
Not this time. There was a meeting in Lhasa because of which they couldn’t come. In any case, all our supplies come from the north, and for this fair, they sent two truckloads of supplies. We have good relations at this moment with China, and we need that.
Limi’s people still maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Kathmandu and its officials don’t understand that. When army officials, bureaucrats came to check the border, they saw our small fields, they saw our villages, and they thought this valley is like the rest of Nepal. They didn’t bother to see that our grazing lands were in Tibet.
You’re talking about the border agreement in the 1960s…
Yes. Those who signed the agreement from the Nepali side did not understand Limi’s lifestyle. They did not ask Limi’s people before signing the agreement. Then in 1991, when I became MP, the agreement to halt trans-border grazing practices was about to come to an end without any signs of renewal. At the time I came to Taklakot and asked Purang county to extend it by a year, which they did.
It’s difficult to govern a place if you don’t understand its ecology. In the monsoons, there are enough grasslands here. But it’s difficult during the winter, because the grasslands are snowed in. Traditionally, Limi’s herdsmen took their animals to Tibet in the winters, where the grass remained uncovered because of the wind.
There are no such arrangements in place now. The trans-border grazing agreement was finalized and needed to be renewed every five years. The agreement said Nepal needed to develop its own pasturelands within the next five years, and reduce the number of grazing animals by 20 percent every year. Once China proposed that, we signed the agreement without consulting the locals.
The pasture agreement was finalized in…
It must have been around 1992. After the agreement was finalized, Limi locals began to graze their animals within Humla, in Dhwajang Khola or Chwa Khola. Several livestock died. The people of Limi are skilled artisans who would come to lower Humla in the winters to make bakkhus, or pursue carpentry work. But since our relations with Tibet were cut off, these handcrafted products did not find a market. This affected them economically. It was only after they were allowed to work in Taklakot that their situation improved. Their income levels rose, and they’d bring supplies from China as well.
At least now China understands that they cut off Limi’s access to pasturelands, and that the people suffered as a result. Maybe that’s why they agreed to open the Lapche border. When I first brought the bulldozer, several friends on the Chinese side helped me out. Troubles within my own party bothered me, especially regarding allocation of budgets. If there were no issues, I could have brought the road to Simikot within eight months.
Let’s talk about sustainable agriculture, and commercialization. What’s your view on whether farming can be commercialized in Limi?
There have been several developments that have hit Humla’s food security. The first was the rise of community forests, and sheep no longer being allowed to graze in such forests. Community forests became popular in the middle Himalayas, but they directly affected nomadic pastoralists. Nepal’s policies and laws do not guarantee anything for those involved in nomadism or animal husbandry. Rather, they only look at sedentary agricultural practices. Our policymakers saw the farms and villages in Limi and decided locals here practiced a sedentary lifestyle as in the lower reaches. But the people here are not sedentary. When agriculture did not provide, they switched to animal husbandry, then trade. Our policymakers did not study this mode of life. They completely ignored it, and introduced the concept of community forests.
Community forests succeeded in conserving our forests, but they were deadly for those who lived in the upper mountains. Our traditional way of life suffered. Then we could not even sell Tibetan salt after the government said it had no iodine. When India started to build roads in the lower plains, Indian salt began to reach Simikot. But from Mechi to Mahakali, our livelihood practices collapsed after the introduction of Indian salt. The barter economy that sustained our livelihoods was gone. This barter economy was our mode of production, a crucial link between Nepal and Tibet. But this collapsed after the introduction of market economy.
Market economies look great at first glance. I can buy a biscuit, a chocolate, eggs, even sugar. But remember, sugar was unknown to us in the mountains. Till yesterday, we sustained ourselves on community-to-community interactions. Now suddenly we face a globalized world, and this is a challenge. Nepal’s various challenges today are the result of a dismantling and rearrangement of our traditional modes of production. We were a rural economy not so far back. Today, we are in an age of market economies. But we don’t have the money to compete, nor do we know the ways to earn. We don’t have enough education. We cannot handle the technology. We haven’t been able to build capacity.
So you see less possibility of agriculture being commercialized in Limi?
I think it’s a good idea, but I also want to revisit our definition of ‘commercial agriculture’. For example, we have large flatlands in the Terai, but we haven’t been able to commercialize agriculture there either. We Communists kept saying the land belongs to those who till it. We’ve left that slogan behind.
In the Himalayas, we have smaller land holdings. But we have potential. We need to conduct detailed ecological studies here in Humla to see what we can grow and export. If we had better road access, we could easily supply to Tibetan markets. We can grow apples, walnuts, almonds here without much difficulty. If we can develop industries based around these agro-products and can package it properly, and if we develop a transport network, we can easily sell in Tibet.
But we have a big problem on our border – we don’t have a quarantine centre. On the Chinese side, there’s everything. They have a quarantine centre, they have customs and immigration counters. Their systems are in place. We don’t have anything on our side. So if we are to export agricultural products to Tibet, we first need a quarantine centre. The Chinese need to be assured our products aren’t diseased or defective.
What is the update on the quarantine centre?
There isn’t any update. We’ve just initiated conversations. The two roads linking Simikot to Lapche and Hilsa cross through the right places if one were to source products from here. We can produce organic potatoes for Taklakot, which currently sources vegetables from far beyond. In Humla, we can grow potatoes everywhere. We have fertilizers in our gobar, we have water, we have kharkas to grow the crop. Now we can even use trucks to carry our produce. My belief is that if we could supply potatoes to Taklakot, we could easily make the crop more affordable there.
What is the biggest issue on the Hilsa border at this moment?
Our lack of attention. For example, we don’t have an immigration centre here; the Nepal Police is looking at immigration right now. So many tourists use Hilsa to go to Kailash – nearly 15,000 every year – and we can increase those numbers. But we don’t have an immigration centre in Hilsa. We don’t even have a building on our side. The customs department has one official in Hilsa, and his appointment too was because of a contract to import alcohol, else he would also not be posted here. On the other side, China has regulations. We may produce organic quality material, but without passing their regulations, they will believe our produce has diseases, or is of substandard quality. But I have been pushing for this. Let’s see.
What sort of support are you getting from the center?
I’d call it positive. The agriculture minister and I have had several talks. The previous agriculture secretary was most amenable too; I’ve started talks with the new secretary too. I heard someone from the Department of Agriculture had come to Halji too; I couldn’t meet him. He should have gone to Hilsa to see the situation for himself.
What is your biggest challenge hereon?
Our human resource. People voted for me because they hoped I could do something about it. But when I was voted in, the federal system came into play. Now, all the resources have gone to the provinces, to village municipalities. People keep asking me about new projects, but they are not aware of these systemic changes. Our finance minister says MPs do not need a budget anymore. Our development funds were cut in the name of corruption. If someone is corrupt, action must be taken against them. But is it fair to tar everyone with the same brush? I am not satisfied with this arrangement.
The other thing is, the center hasn’t understood Karnali’s economy. Karnali’s lack of development reminds me of something Marx said: the mode of production determines the superstructure. The mode of production is our base, and it affects the psychology, the organizational structure. But if we develop plans and policies without keeping the base in mind, without keeping our modes of production in mind, and only by understanding what the superstructure demands, we will come up with flawed plans.
Kathmandu needs to build a lot of bridges – not just literal but also mental, educational and political – to Karnali. We have highlands and lowlands here in Nepal. But it is us who come from the periphery who are failures.
The men who rule at the centre come from the lowlands and do not understand the highlands, their ecology or the issues. We had an issue with a grazing ground here in Limi nearly 18-20 years ago. Now, some people from the ministry of agriculture, who were from the Madhesh, they had the smart idea to develop grasslands here by planting grass. But that was never our problem… So without understanding the ecology, a policy from the lowlands was implemented here in the mountains.
We need to bring in highland policies from European countries who live in the cold, from Tibet, and from India’s Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh or Sikkim. The problem is that our PHD-walas, Nepal’s think-tankers, they push for policies without seeing what Nepal is like, without studying about Nepal. We [highlanders] are not present at the centre. The lowlands are not affected by us. But we are definitely affected by what happens in the lowlands.
It has been said that federalism has allowed local governments to function better. What has federalism done to Limi?
In my opinion, federalism is a developed country’s model. Although India is under-developed and yet federal, several of its regions are highly developed. It’s more difficult in our country…Federalism seems like a problem to me. We have a lot of under-educated people in Nepal, lots of rural regions. I feel a centralized administration works better in areas with a rural population. In a centralized administration, decisions can be taken from the top, and even if a top-down policy may not necessarily be good for democracy, Nepal’s village municipalities remain weak. They don’t have enough human resources; their education levels are still weak. With such conditions, it’s difficult to run a federal government.
Now, federalism doesn’t run on grants. States need to generate income on their own. A civil society can only operate if there are enough avenues to earn incomes. Without providing for such avenues, people have begun to demand for rights. But all rights come with responsibilities. Rights work in close proximity to freedom. But responsibility is closer to capacity-building, towards empowerment. If we keep regarding grants as our right, if we keep believing the centre or the state government will provide, but we don’t pay our taxes, what is the point?
So how do you see yourself working for Limi in the next, say, 10 or 15 years?
My dream is that Humla will be connected to the Karnali road corridor within the next five years. Let Humla also be developed as an organic agriculture zone. An environment needs to be created to grow high-value products like apples, walnuts, almonds etc. here. This will help the ecology and raise income levels. Then we must have additional industries based around such produce. To distribute the products, we must develop roads, both national highways that can transport product to other countries and linkage roads connecting local markets so that products can be transported.
If we put in place a quarantine centre and a customs office at Hilsa, I can see that Limi can progress in the next five to six years. This is my dream, but there are also many stakeholders. Our municipalities have a lot of authority, but they do not have the capacity. Our bureaucracy is similarly weak. So we have possibilities, but we also have issues. The key is to move ahead keeping both in mind.
Finally, how do you see Humla’s development in the context of improving Nepal-China relations?
China is in the right position at this moment, and because of that, we think positively about the country. Yet, there hasn’t been much people-to-people contact between the two countries. China appears clean to us because there aren’t any political games and has grown in a stable fashion. It has a strong government. There is good governance. A corrupt person is punished there, perhaps because it has a strong government. We don’t have that. In its place, we have a democracy, which is a developed country’s software.
Take freedom of expression. Who needs it? Those who need to express their views, like a politician, or like you, a writer. Those who give speeches need freedom of expression. But the people at the lowest level, they don’t need that, they need rozi roti. Why do Limi’s people need freedom of expression? The Limi person is satisfied if he gets to fill his stomach.
You and I are the same. I am a leader, and I need the freedom to express my views, just as you need the freedom to write. Our rights, and the rights of the people of Limi, are two different ideas. Their basic right is the right to eat. For them, the right to eat, to clothe themselves properly, gaans, kaapas, these are human rights. That is freedom for them. Further, we border Tibet, which is now in China. Our democracies do not align. In western democracies, they define human rights as liberal freedoms, the freedom to eat or wear what you want, and individual freedom. In China, there’s more discipline, almost military-like. But they’ve made their people richer; they now have enough to eat, enough to wear. But the freedom we seek, there’s little of that. And yet, that is the freedom our people want.
Read more: On the Road in Humla
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