Utter the word “Jumla” in Kathmandu, and the questions are of its grinding poverty, remoteness, poor health care, child marriage, high maternal mortality, chronic food shortages and malnutrition. Jumla has an image problem.
However, Jumla is changing and the reason is the arrival of the Karnali Highway which now connects this once remote region to Surkhet and the rest of Nepal.
Where there were once stone and mud houses with slate roofs, there are ersatz of modernity and development: cement blocks, steel framed windows, ATMs, department stores and a gym club.
“I am the first one to start a store of this kind here,” says Dipak Bikram Shahi of the Royal Fancy Collection that sells designer clothing and branded accessories that has a monthly turnover of Rs 2 million. “The people’s buying habits and purchasing power is changing with the pace of development in Jumla,” he adds.
While many would lament the steady disappearance of Jumla’s quaint houses with roof terrace, log ladders and narrow cobble stone streets, most locals are proud of the town’s progress in the past ten years.
The district has even got a fitness centre, probably the first in the Karnali Zone. Khagendra Singh, 39, used to run a gym in Kathmandu for more than a decade but decided to return to his home town to open a fitness club.
“I wanted to set up a fitness trend here and succeeded in that. I already have 200 members,” Singh told the Nepali Times.
Construction of the Karnali Highway was delayed because of the conflict, but when it was completed in 2007 it linked Jumla to Surkhet (232km) and Kathmandu (850 km). The road was blacktopped two years ago, and although narrow and treacherous has transformed the lives of Jumlis. The district’s apples and oranges which used to rot on trees can now be transported to markets, and the road has also made food and other essential items cheaper.
Rupa Rokaya, 52, is a successful entrepreneur and makes a profit selling fresh and dried apples. She says her business would not be possible without the road. “I took an apple processing training under MEDEP (Micro-Enterprise Development Program) after the road arrived and I haven’t thrown away a single apple after that,” she says of the project started by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Mani Neupane recalls he had to walk 15 days to reach Nepalganj just to buy medicines, and cannot believe how much and how fast Jumla has been transformed. There are now five daily buses to Surkhet, and two buses that connect Jumla directly to Kathmandu every day.
However, cheaper road transport has affected the Jumla Airport, which was upgraded ten years ago and used to see 15 flights a day to Nepalganj, Surkhet, Simikot and Pokhara, but now gets only about three daily flights.
“I feel lucky to live to see the development of my district. Sometimes, when I remember the old days, it feels like a dream,” says Neupane.
Although the Karnali Zone still lies close to the bottom in terms of Human Development Index, the town is proof of how fast a district can catch up with road connectivity. Neighbouring Dolpa and Humla are the only two districts in Nepal yet to be linked to the national road network.
Already 24 of Jumla’s 26 VDCs have dirt roads and this has meant better health and education. The government-run Karnali Academy of Health Science is now up and running and preparations are underway to start a medical college. Jumla Disrict Hospital, the Karnali Technical School and health posts in almost all VDCs are being upgraded.
Local Development Officer Hari Narayan Belbase claims poverty has been eradicated in Jumla. “Food shortages are now a thing of the past,” he says, adding that the district can now turn its attention to addressing various social ills like caste and gender discrimination.
Looking around Jumla today, there are no signs of two deadly Maoist attacks in 2002 in which the CDO, DSP, 33 policemen, four soldiers and more than 55 Maoist cadres were killed.
Even so, not everyone is enamoured with the new trappings of modernity in Jumla. Health worker Radha Paudel, whose book - Khalangama Hamala - on the Maoist attacks that won the Madan Puraskar, says just replacing stone and mud houses with ferrocement buildings is not an indicator of development.
“The absence of war doesn’t mean peace,” she told us, “there are no more bombs and curfews but we have a lot to do for a socio-cultural transformation in the lives of the people.”
Paudel says the absolute poverty rate may have gone down but there are many for whom proper health care is still neither accessible nor affordable. She adds, “The war may have ended, but the fight to ensure health care is ongoing, health posts still don’t have medicines and water supply.”
With better road and air connectivity, Jumla is waiting for a tourism boom. When new hotels with better facilities come up, Jumla can be the springboard for the scenic 4-day hike to Rara Lake, or a wilderness trek across the Kagmara Pass to Dolpa and on to Phoksundo Lake.
Jumla is also located on the Great Himalayan Trail and could be a stopover for trekkers heading towards Mt Api and Mt Saipal. Located at nearly 3,000m the Jumla Valley is the highest paddy-growing area in the world with its famous red rice. The surrounding mountains get copious snowfall in January, and could be developed as a destination for cross-country skiing.
Travel entrepreneur Lalit Jung Mahat sees possibilities for both downhill and cross-county skiing holidays if lodging and facilities could be upgraded. In spring and summer, the area can also offer rafting and paragliding.
Promoting religious tourism to the famous Chandannath Temple and improving the hot springs at Tatopani could be combined as a health and pilgrimage package for domestic tourists.
“The proper management of Tatopani could boost Jumla’s tourism because the waters are said to be therapeutic and have healing properties,” says Laxmi Prasad Upadhyaya of Jumla DDC.
Online package: Shreejana Shrestha
All photos: Shreejana Shrestha