Gumba Village: A world on its own
Imagine a village without communication facilities like telephone, radio, etc. The only primary school in the village opens hardly three months a year. Due to travel time taken for voting which is almost two days up and down, villagers are reluctant to take initiative. Here we try to unfold a story of a remote hilly village in the far-western district, Bajura.
-Prakash Singh: Centre For Investigative Journalism
A sturdy four-day walk from Martadi, headquarters of Bajura district will take you to Gumba Gaon, a remote village in Himali Village Municipality-3. The inquisitiveness within us to get acquainted with the life, society, economy and politics of this far-flung village made us hit the road from the district headquarters, Martadi via Kolti, Kawadi and Baudi to our final destination (Gumba Village).
A settlement of 25 families of "Bhote" community, this scenic village is nestled between Deusain and Lampata mountains to the north, Majhpur village of Tajakot village municipality, Humla to the south and Baudi and Deusen villages of Bichhaya to the east and south. It takes almost a day to reach Baudi and one and a half day to reach Deusain from Gumba. According to a senior citizen, Tshering Dorje, they have been residing in Gumba village for the last five generations.
Medicinal herbs have been the major source of livelihood for the Gumba folks. Locals collect herbs in and around Sain, Lampata himalayan range and nearby jungles and sell them to buy rice. According to them, July, August, and September are considered as the favorable months for collecting herbs. People of Gumba village usually use sheep to transport commodities, including salt from Kolti, which takes nearly eight days. Locals buy common salt during winter while in the rainy season they use sheep to transport local black salt from China border. Both climate and land are unfavorable for cultivating wheat, paddy, barley, potato, and millet. And even if they do, the yield lasts for only three months. Sheep transportation has been a major source of survival for some people of this village.
Meanwhile, the majority of people here do not have citizenship certificates especially for two reasons: firstly; the district headquarters is very far and secondly; ignorance. More than 60 people above 18 years of age do not have their names in the voter's list. Only 12 among them have acquired citizenship certificates. With a total population of some 200 people, Gumba Gaon comprises of three small villages – Phuli Gumba with four families, Gumba with 14 families and Chyachaur village with seven families.
"I cannot walk all the way to Martadi," a 62-year old Tokang Gurung complains, adding that he would have received the old-age allowance had he acquired his citizenship certificate. "I have no way out. No one is willing to help me out," he sighs. Interestingly, 25-year old Kalchang has not obtained his citizenship due to ignorance. For local Doma Gurung, it is a herculean task to obtain citizenship for people of Gumba village. "On one hand, district headquarters is very far and even if you reach there, the office secretary will not be available easily."
When we inquired about the status of official documents like birth, death, divorce, and migration, volunteer Pasang Lama said people in the village are oblivious to all these formalities.
For instance, Prem Singh Gurung, a father of nine children, is unaware of acquiring birth, marriage or death certificates. Neither his 25-year old son nor his 5-year old daughter has birth certificates. Similar is the case with his neighbor Tasang Gurung, a father of five children.
Despite government's policy of immunization to all by 2017, thirty-six children below the age of 5 (including 20 children below 2 years) in Gumba village are yet to receive the vaccination. In fact, 11 vaccinations for 11 different diseases like BCG, Penta, PCV, MR, Japanese Encephalitis, and Polio are mandatory for children below two years.
Doma Gurung's nine-month baby has not received any vaccination. Doma's neighbor Laxmi, a mother of three, too is unaware of immunization. Similarly, local Chhamu Thapa has heard of vaccination but has not been able to go to health posts. Reason: It takes one day to reach the health post.
In-charge at Bichhaya Health Post, Kamal Acharya admits that children of Gumba village are deprived of health facilities, including vaccination. "There is a health post at Yuna village where we conduct health camps on the 22nd of every month. But since it is a one-day walk, locals of Gumba village hesitate to come for treatment or vaccination." Acharya, who has been working at the Bichhaya health post since the last 14 months said that health workers, including him, have not visited Gumba village even once owing to geographic remoteness and difficult terrain. When we put up the issue to Dr. Rup Chandra Biswokarma, Acting Chief at the Martadi District Health Office, he wrapped up the issue saying, "This is unfortunate and should not have happened."
Purchasing a Paracetamol (medicine for fever) tablet for locals of Gumba village means a lot since it is a two-day affair to get to the health post. Therefore, they go for local herbal medicines. Sanchura Gurung, down with fever for a month, has been relying on local herbs. She says, "We need to walk one day to get medicines and another day to return to village which is troublesome for us."
According to Pasang Lama, a volunteer, locals of Gumba village are entirely unacquainted with contraceptives or family planning. "Forget about permanent vasectomy," she quipped while mentioning the names of parents who have children from 5 to 11 in numbers.
Himal Bhakti Primary School was closed on Jestha 7, 2074 BS. Established in 2037 BS, this school remains open roughly two to three months in a year. The academic session supposed to begin from Baisakh was yet to commence even in the first week of Jestha. Interestingly, the school up to Grade 3 has 14 students, including 10 in Grade One and two each in Grade 2 and 3. According to local, Jagat Thapa, there are 14 names enrolled in the school register. While headmaster Bhim Giri is a permanent teacher, Ratna Lal BiKa, another teacher, is on a contract basis. A local of Gumba village has been appointed as an office assistant.
The establishment of herbal treatment plant inside the school compound by former minister Chakka Bahadur Lama of Humla is strong evidence that classes are irregular. According to local Krishna Lama, since teachers are often irregular, students are least bothered about their studies. Not a single person of this village has completed grade 5. According to Umesh Regmi, school inspector at the District Education Office, they have not been able to inspect the school basically due to geographical remoteness. According to him, it takes one day walking for grade 4 to 8 students to reach to Baudi whereas two days for grade 9 and 10 students to reach to Bichhaya from Gumba village.
This village gets isolated from the rest of the country for four months during monsoon. Two swollen rivers sans bridges cut off Gumba village from Bichhaya. During winter, people make temporary wooden bridges in these rivers. Locals feel neglected by the government authorities. Forget about monsoon, people here do not feel government's presence even during winter. Former VDC secretary Gauri Kant Sanjal says, "I am aware of the problems in Gumba village but have not been able to reach there."
The irony is that this village is deprived of communication systems like telephone lines or radio. Moreover, it is entirely cut off from other villages during monsoon. "Maila VDC in Humla is the nearest place to go for us to make a phone call and it takes two days to reach there," Bisna Lama says.
Two days to cast vote
People of Bajura district will be casting their votes in the second phase of the local election. Therefore, we tried to read people's minds about the upcoming elections. In fact, some influential people of the village, during the 2070 BS Constituent Assembly elections, had demanded that election center be established in Gumba village but to no avail. Who would heed to the demands of a remote village having just 25 households? Despite wide media coverage about the problem, authorities seemed to be least bothered. The then Election Commissioner Dr. Aayodhee Prasad Yadav had assured of establishing election booth in the village in the next election. Despite being the current Chief Election Commissioner, Dr. Yadav seems to be least bothered in fulfilling his assurances. Forget about Kathmandu, authorities at the district headquarter (Martadi) are not serious about it. "It's already late this time. We will recommend it for next election," district election officer Subhadra Gautam told us. She realized the geographical inaccessibility of Gumba village after we narrated the problem of the village. "Now I have realized it," she said.
Election office record shows that only 30 people among the 25 families of this village are eligible voters. Their names have been enlisted in the voters' list since they, especially sheep owners, received citizenship certificates during their trip to district headquarters. Therefore, their names have been enlisted in the voter's list. However, they do not cast their ballots since it takes one day to reach to the voting center at Ganga Primary School in Himali village municipality-3.
- Tshering Dorje, 80, who is considered as an influential person of Gumba village has cast his vote only once in his life. A patient of asthma, Dorje says, "Can't go that far to vote this time."
- 72-year old Kali Bahadur Gurung has never cast a vote. He is unaware of the process. He says, "Seems I will die without casting a single vote in my life."
- Moti Gurung, 65, too has never cast her ballot. She is neither aware of the election process nor knows what voter's list is.
- 46 years old Chhongala Kunwar, a person with a disability, and her husband, 45, do not have citizenship certificates. Their two sons, 25 and 20 years, share the same story.
- Likewise, 75-year-old Nakhu Gurung recalls his experience of ‘a one-day walk’ to the election center someday. "I have decided not to go this time. Cannot walk," he said.
- Local Jagat Lama says, "It will take at least two days to cast our votes. Therefore, it doesn’t seems possible this time."
- Jung Bahadur Thapa is of the opinion that they have to spare three days just to cast their votes. "More than three voters above 60 years of age and 7 women voters are in this village," he informed. "I don't see any advantage in voting," a disappointed Thapa said.
We familiarized the entire episode of the Gumba village before the Election Commission (EC). Upon hearing the story, astounded EC Spokesperson Surya Prasad Sharma said, "There is a criteria of establishing election center within a 5-kilometer periphery. Walking whole day to cast a vote is beyond the criteria." To a query whether a small number of voters from far-flung villages are compelled to undergo hardship to cast their ballot, he said, "It is not about the number of voters. The issue is everyone should be able to vote easily. EC did not know that people of remote villages are deprived of their right to vote because of geographic difficulties."