How local governments & communities are working together to create livelihood opportunities for the people impacted by COVID-19 in Nepal
It is a warm mid-March afternoon. Twenty something locals are seated on a plot of freshly harvested land. Behind them runs a newly built four-foot wide concrete foot trail that passes through the Tamang settlement, minutes' walk away from the main bazaar of Chautara, Sindhupalchowk's district headquarters.
"It is 800 metres long," said Bikram Tamang, Chair, Gairi Gaun Users' Committee, locally known as Tole Bikas Samiti, which in English translates as neighborhood development committee.
Soft-spoken Tamang takes a brief pause, probably to organize his thoughts before elaborating on how the foot trail would benefit the locals. But then a moment of silence is a bit too long. The users are happy and excited, and each has something to say about the trail that is already becoming a strategic pass as it cuts average walk time by roughly half hour, according to the locals.
"Yo swarga jaane baato," Birman Tamang, 33, breaks the silence. "A road to heaven." Over the next hour or so, he would recite that phrase multiple times, at some point nearly drawing snaps from others suggesting that he hold himself back so others get a chance to speak.
The Tamang settlement of Gairi Gaun sits on the lap of foot hills, like the busy Chautara bazaar itself. For outsiders and first time visitors it is an exotic locale – except for a fact that it fringes a decades old market place of an urban municipality.
"The road benefits some 1,500 households, many of them from far-off places like Jalbire and Kuvinde" said Bikram. "Men, women and children taking bus rides to the district headquarters get off at the head of the foot trail, take a short-cut through our village and then head down to the bazaar, and back up," he added. "They save 15 minutes of one-way walk."
When the locals approached UNDP for necessary funds to upgrade the trail through a local non-governmental organization, Janahit, they thought it would only serve the settlement with seven dozen households.
"When the project kicked off we invited the Mayor to observe," said Rajendra Sharma, Janahit's chief executive officer. "The Mayor was so pleased with the design and the work in progress he offered to match the UNDP fund to make it a concrete foot trail."
The concrete trail has brought a huge sigh of relief to the Tamang women, many of them left as single mothers back in the village because their spouses were in Kathmandu in search of income opportunities.
Because their "men" are away to earn money, wide-ranging responsibilities fall on the shoulders of women, many of them young mothers with school going children. Rural agriculture depends on them. They have chicks to feed and cattle to raise, and they walk long distances down the slippery slopes and back up to collect fodder, day in day out.
The trail that passed through the Tamang community was the most difficult – steep and rather slippery. "Many of us have rolled down this trail with sacks of rice, or paddy or fodder on our backs and injured ourselves," Laxmi Shrestha said with a wry smile.
Walking the trail was more difficult during the rainy season and dusks around the year.
But that's all a thing of the past, according to men and women who worked to build the foot trail.
"By the way, women have not worked less than men," quipped Purnima Tamang, 34, drawing warm smiles from other women assembled around the paddy field.
Simplemindedness of the Tamangs twinkles in their faces and one can feel happiness in the air.
"Doing up and down with stuff on our backs now makes it easy," 55-year old Yangji Tamang said.
The trail construction did give some economic respite to the locals, who had started heading back home as the COVID-19 broke out in Nepal in March prompting an unprepared government to impose nationwide lockdown, all of a sudden.
Daily wage workers not just did not have an opportunity to collect their money, but were also left without public transport to return home. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people walked for days to go back to their roots.
They included thousands from Sindhupalchowk district, quite a few from the Tamang community of Gairi Gaun.
Pandemic. Back home. No income to support the family.
"My son and daughter-in-law who worked in Kathmandu and sent money home regularly returned empty-handed," 59 year-old Ijhi Maya Tamang said. "My husband has been ill for long. We did not have money to buy regular medicines for him."
The trail construction gave Ijhi Maya and others some respite as they found a short-term employment right outside their home. "I used the daily wages that I made constructing this trail to buy medicines for my husband."
Cash-strapped community members were in dire situations, and a daily wage job that would pay them money was just overwhelming for some.
"I earned 8,000 rupees," said Sarita Tamang, 26. Her voice choked as she tried to say a thing or two more. "I have a small hut down there; no land, no income," Sarita broke down in tears. "Please help me find a job like this one," she said. "It helps."
[These efforts were carefully designed as part of our longer-term crisis response, through which UNDP focused on helping the national and sub-national governments of Nepal in providing livelihood recovery support to the COVID-affected populations through small-scale community infrastructure projects. This particular foot-trail was co-funded by Royal Thai Government, UNDP and Sindhupalchowk Municipality. To know more, please visit UNDP's Evolving COVID Response, which presents a snapshot of all our ongoing activities.]
Story by UNDP Nepal. Photos: Prakash Chandra Timilsena for UNDP Nepal