Reflections from the field: Federalism in Nepal

25 May

For the last few days I was in the field, visiting various municipalities of Province 1 in Nepal. We mostly visited the Terai districts (Morang and Jhapa) and parts of mid-hill district of Udaypur. I have been visiting Terai regularly since 2015 when we started the solar pump irrigation project in Saptari district. However, this is the first time that I visited after federalism came into effect vide the Constitution promulgated in September 2015. Nepal’s current Constitution is progressive and inclusive in almost all respects, though there are controversies around citizenship rules that doesn’t allow women to pass on Nepali citizenship to her children. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about here, check this opinion piece for knowing more on the citizenship controversy.

What’s the new federal structure? Under the new Constitution, there are three levels of government – Central, Provincial and Local (urban and rural municipalities). One might say, well, that’s the same as in India – but wait, it’s not, because unlike India, local governments are way more powerful than the Provincial Governments. As almost everyone will agree, a Mayor of a Municipality is in many ways more powerful than the Chief Minister of a state. I can’t say I understand the new power structure and dynamics way too well yet, but as the new federal structure unfolds, my researcher’s eyes would remain riveted on the developments.

What I already saw in the field was fascinating enough. First, is the sheer hope, positivity and empowerment among these Mayors. Earlier, when we visited Village Development Committees (the lowest unit of government then), we found a lot of enthusiasm for projects on solar pumps or work on spring revival and the willingness to participate as a beneficiary. However, what’s new now is also the capacity to say that, “your program is relevant for us, please bring it to our municipality and we will make budgetary provisions, including cost sharing arrangements”. Given that the major responsibility for development program planning and implementation is with the local governments now, they are getting injected with funds directly from the Central Government, as well as from the Provincial Governments. In addition, they can raise their own taxes too. They are also hiring experts and consultants on relevant areas of priority, for instance, in one Municipality, they had hired an agricultural engineer, in another, they were discussing the need for a renewable energy expert. During the course of our discussions, I could see two gaps emerging – one that of technical capacity – not all the central and provincial ministries had staff at the local level. Some like agriculture, and animal husbandry staff were well represented at the local level, while none from irrigation or renewable energy were. Second, we saw a lot of duplication of efforts – for instance, everyone we talked to, from the Central agency, down to the local agency, wanted to install solar pumps for irrigation, but were doing so either independently, or trying to build up coalitions, which were taking time to fructify.

Having said that, the kind of decentralisation path that Nepal has embarked upon is phenomenal – I am not aware of any other developing country in our part of the world, with this level of decentralised decision making where local elected representatives are making the rules. Rules, especially around coordination among the provincial and local governments are still emerging and this fluidity and flexibility offers enormous scope for understanding and streamlining decision making processes. I hope that scores of other researchers are just as fascinated as I am and will embark on policy relevant research that can inform this decentralised mode of governance.

Good time to a rural Nepali now when their voices can be heard at the local level, and when decisions can be taken at the local level too.




A comprehensive political ecology reading list

2 Dec

A great reading list on political ecology. I am hoping to read many of these papers in the coming few weeks.

ENTITLE blog - a collaborative writing project on Political Ecology

By Julian Bloomer*

Looking for a compilation of important texts in political ecology? Julian Bloomer shares his comprehensive reading list, following a brief introduction to how it came about.

View original post 15,786 more words

Some thoughts on solar powered irrigation pumps in South Asia

8 Nov

Future Earth network recently published my blog on SPIPs. Here is the link


Back after a long hiatus

8 Nov

I haven’t been quite up to date with my blog posts in the last few years. And I intend to change it now. Thanks to all my readers who have taken the time to write, or talk to me and in the process encouraged me to resume my blog. I hope to write on issues of water-energy and food, as always. I also hope to post a lot more scientific papers on climate change and water in my role as coordinating lead author of water chapter in IPCC AR6. Keep reading and sending  me your feedback.

The political economy of metering agricultural tube wells in West Bengal, India — published in Water International

20 Oct

Unmetered electricity supply to agriculture has given rise to a unique and invidious water–energy–food nexus in India. Metering of agricultural consumers has been suggested as a way to break the nexus, but most states have not been able to meter farmers due to their opposition . The only exception is the state of West Bengal. Using primary data from a household survey conducted in 2010 when the metering process was still underway, this paper argues that farmers’ support for metering in West Bengal can be explained in terms of the economics of groundwater use and politics surrounding agriculture and groundwater in the state.


A blog based on our paper, posted by WLE of the CGIAR

11 Aug

The paper on which this blog is based, was published in Water Alternatives, Vol (7), Issue (2), June 2014.  Here is the link to the full paper, which I believe, is freely downloadable. If any of you have problems downloading the paper, let me know and I will be happy to send you a pdf copy.

Energy scarcity, and not delayed monsoon, is to blame for late paddy transplantation in Nepal

13 Jul

This year, monsoon has played truant. According to the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, rainfall deficit in the western and far western region of Nepal for the month of June is around 50%, while the Indian Meteorological Department estimates rainfall deficit in India at ­­­43%. Scientists reckon that El Nino effect is to blame. El Nino is the weather phenomena caused by the warming of the sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean. It occurs irregularly every two to seven years and is associated with weaker monsoon. 2002 and 2009 were El Nino years during which monsoon rainfall was below normal, causing drought and decline in crop production in many parts of South Asia. South Asia Climate Outlook Forum (SASCOF), which prepares monsoon outlook for South Asia every year, indicated that this year monsoon is likely to be below normal.

Poor monsoon is terrible news for our region’s agriculture given the limited irrigation facilities and heavy reliance on rain-fed farming. The slow pace of paddy transplantation in Nepal is making headlines, while the price rise and hoarding is making news in India. If monsoon rains do not catch up soon, it will have serious implications on food security, food prices and overall economic growth in the region. There is not much we could have done about the delayed monsoon, but were there ways in which its negative impact on agriculture could have been reduced?

Farmers need energy and irrigation infrastructure to grow food for the country

Yes, negative impacts on agriculture could have been partly averted by concerted investments in irrigation and energy infrastructure, both in the hills and in the Terai. By irrigation, we do not necessarily mean large scale surface irrigation costing millions of dollars, but even small scale irrigation using groundwater could have worked miracles at this time. Indeed there are roughly 120,000 farmer-owned shallow tubewells dotting the Terai and farmers use them for life saving irrigation and for growing high-value crops like vegetables. But they all run on diesel and given the high cost of diesel, it does not make a lot of economic sense for farmers to transplant paddy using diesel pumps. Instead, farmers choose to wait for the arrival of monsoon and by doing so, risk severe reduction in yields. Delayed transplantation affects not only paddy production, but also impacts the rest of the cropping cycle. What is happening right now in Nepal is starkly reminiscent of what happened in Bihar during the 2009 drought. Bihar, like much of Nepal, has poor irrigation infrastructure. It had a deficit rainfall of 40% that year and the area sown with paddy plummeted by 50%, leading to severe loss in farmers’ income. However, in Punjab, with similar rainfall deficit, there was hardly any decline in cropped area simply because farmers had access to irrigation – both through canals and electricity operated groundwater pumps.

In places like the Terai, where groundwater is available in plenty and at very shallow depths, it is indeed distressing to see fields left fallow due to late arrival of monsoon, or for that matter, fields left fallow during the summer season, when a second or a third crop could have been easily grown. Similar is the case in the mid hills, where perennial rivers flow at valley bottoms, but water cannot be lifted from the rivers to irrigate fields on hill slopes.

Energy scarcity and not water scarcity is the real issue

The Terai and the mid hills do not really face a physical scarcity of water per se, even when monsoons fail once in a while, like it may this year. Water is available, either a few feet below the ground in abundantly recharged aquifers, or flowing through the river valleys. Yet, farmers cannot use this plentiful water because they lack access to affordable and reliable sources of energy to lift that water. While the impact of power shortage on urban residents and industries is much discussed, farmers’ plight due to energy scarcity rarely makes headlines.

Just imagine for a moment that most of those 120,000 or so shallow tubewells in the Terai were connected to the electricity grid or solar panels and were getting reliable electricity supply for at least six hours a day. Or that there were several hundreds of small electricity or solar powered lift irrigation systems in the mid hills of Nepal. Then, would farmers still postpone paddy transplantation owing to the delay in monsoon? They most likely would not, because electricity is far more affordable than diesel and the cost of keeping land fallow are much higher.

This very important link between water, energy and agriculture is not well understood. True, the electricity being generated now is not enough for the population in general, not just farmers, but rarely is agricultural electricity deemed important enough to make it to policy documents and future electricity demand forecasts. This needs to change immediately if we want our farmers to cope with the vagaries of monsoon.

Give solar pumps a chance

Nepal is now making its long-term hydropower plans. This is the right time to think about other renewable sources of energy that can be developed and deployed quickly for the benefit of farmers. One such option is solar powered pumps. In the past decade, costs of solar panels have come down sharply, and it is now possible to install 1 HP solar pumps for a little over Rs. 200,000 and no further recurring costs. Higher capacity pumps are also available in the market, albeit at higher prices. These pumps are suitable for one-acre farms and for providing irrigation during the most critical period in paddy transplantation.

Thus, while worrying about the late arrival of monsoon is completely justified, let us not forget that most of the negative consequences of such delay could have been largely avoided if farmers had access to energy.