The rats worry Nand Prasad Subedi. The large ones poke holes in the mud when the farmers sleep at night. He yells out to his son, Navaraj, to walk the length of the narrow canal checking for holes that diverts the water away from his 20 kattha (0.2 hectares) of land where he grows rajma, tori, potato and wheat. His field, like everyone else’s in his village of Kuleni Rajahar, used to turn yellow in winter with rows of mustard that require minimal water to grow. But with the extra water that gets pumped from under the ground, Subedi has switched to growing vegetables — a more lucrative crop.
It is an unusually warm December day. In previous years, Subedi, 67, would have thrown on extra layers to protect himself from fog. But the heat is noticeable this winter. Rajahar, like villages in Bihar and Haryana, was selected as a “climate-smart village”, from amongst several other contenders in this drought-prone belt of the western development region in Nepal. Once a river flowed through the village. Now farmers rely on pumping groundwater using sleek but very expensive solar panels.
The millions of Nepali rupees that it took to install one of the solar panels came partly funded — 15 per cent from the community and 85 per cent from the Arizona State University. In Rajahar, farmers convene to work out what interventions are most suited for local conditions.
Take, for instance, plots of land that have used the zero-tillage machine, like India’s “Happy Seeder” — a machine that enables farmers to sow directly after harvesting paddy. The stubble, too, is recycled in this village, transforming into roofs or animal shelters. It was the success of the first solar panel that led to the setting up of the second one closer to Subedi’s plot, says Aastha Bhusal, who works for Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LIBARD), one of the project partners.
Yet, Rajahar has an absent demographic: young men who have migrated to the Gulf states, looking for work to raise modern cities far from the fields they grew up on. Navaraj, who has returned to Nepal after a being a security guard at the Dubai International Airport for over a decade, says it is not the sun but remittances that keep this “climate smart” village afloat.
Few kilometres away in Agyauli village, the story is much the same: youngsters are away for work in foreign lands. The women of the village make up the majority in the farmers’ committee, 71 per cent as against 29 per cent men. The chairperson and vice-chairperson were away, leaving a man to explain to the visitors about the community seed bank. It is an informal collection of seeds maintained by local communities and managed with their traditional knowledge. “The idea was to protect and conserve local varieties and increase access to seeds,” says the NGO’s regional coordinator Pitambar Shreshta. The reasons for moving away from local varieties was the increased emphasis on yield and food security. “There was also a push from the government, apply more fertiliser to a given plot of land, and get more out of it,” he says.
Yet, Agyauli has slowly returned to taking stock of what it once traditionally grew, in fact, 65 varieties, detailed on a green placard and displayed in plastic containers in a room. Uttam Kumar Sigdel, one of the older farmers, boasts of knowing 100 different varieties of rice. “The village now distributes seeds to neighbouring villages too, happy to share their knowledge,” Shreshta says.