The quest for “clumsy solutions” in Nepal’s mountains

Options Magazine, Winter 2011: 

A simple cable system carrying milk across a valley in the Mahabharat Mountains provides insight into a complex theory of world views and conflict resolution

Nepal mountains

Nepal mountains

Every morning, high on the mountainous rim of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, a secondhand Austrian cable system moves metal carriers containing fresh milk across a deep valley to a truck waiting on the nearest road. Given the rugged topography, this two-mile link is a simple, cheap, and efficient way of getting milk to market in the capital city before it spoils.

When IIASA anthropologist Michael Thompson first heard of this cable system, known as the Bhattedanda Milkway, it was just a curiosity—an interesting solution to a problem. But when he heard of its conflict-ridden history while attending an IIASA workshop in Kathmandu, he realized that it provided an excellent illustration of his work on the theory of plural rationality (also called Cultural Theory). “A concept without an example,” he says, “is difficult to get across.”

The story of the Bhattedanda Milkway forms one of the eight case study chapters in a new book he is writing with 14 Nepali colleagues, ranging from former government ministers and senior civil servants to hydro-entrepreneurs and manufacturers of electric vehicles. The book—”Development, Climate Change and Clumsiness: The Lessons From Nepal”—examines the implications of the plural rationality concept for solving problems, be it villagers trying to get milk to market or nations endeavoring to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Plural rationality

The theory, developed originally by anthropologist Mary Douglas and expanded by Thompson and his colleagues, argues that there are just four ways of organizing, perceiving, and justifying social relations: hierarchy, individualism, egalitarianism, and fatalism. These four “ways of life” conflict in every conceivable social domain because each will define both the problem and the solution in a way that contradicts the others. There are, in consequence, four “voices.”

  • The hierarchist voice is pro-control. It talks of “global stewardship,” is quick to point out that what is rational for the parts may be disastrous for the whole, and insists that global problems such as climate change demand global and expertly planned solutions.
  • The individualist voice is pro-market. It calls for deregulation, for the freedom to innovate and take risks, and for the internalization of environmental costs so as to “get the prices right.”
  • The egalitarian voice is strident and critical. It scorns the idea of “trickle down,” argues for zero-growth and calls for major shifts in our behavior so as to bring our profligate consumption down within the limits set by Mother Nature.
  • Fatalist actors see no possibility of effecting change for the better, and tend to have no voice. Even so, they have their vital part to play because we need to hear their counsel to not waste time and money over things about which we can do nothing.

Development aid, Thompson observes, being framed largely from the hierarchical standpoint, has always been “elegant.” That, in his view, is not a compliment because elegant solutions entail the silencing of all but one of the four voices. Instead, he values “clumsy” solutions: initially invisible options that emerge from the messy and argumentative process in which each voice is able to make itself heard and is also responsive to the others.

Which brings him to the Bhattedanda Milkway story.

Bhattedanda Milkway, Nepal

The rugged Mahabharat Mountains in Nepal make moving goods to urban markets very difficult. The Bhattedanda Milkway (below) has enabled villagers to move milk and other produce more efficiently, resulting in an economic boom for the farmers.

Constructive conflicts

Before the milkway was built, villagers had no option but to boil their milk down into khuwa, a longer-lasting, but less valuable, condensed milk. With the advent of the milkway, the five-hour trek hauling khuwa down into the valley and up to the road, has been reduced to a 20-minute transport. The economic benefits, once the ropeway opened in 1995, were immediate, with villagers’ incomes increasing by at least 30 percent. But other effects were equally important.

  • The villagers no longer had to spend hours each day collecting firewood or sitting in front of a hearth boiling milk. “Household members,” Madhukar Upadhya, the author of the Bhattedanda case study, writes, “especially the women and children, had to inhale the smoke while khuwa was being made. Now the indoor air is much cleaner.”
  • Once khuwa processing stopped, so did the cutting of the 400 tons per year of firewood needed to boil down the milk. With young plants and saplings no longer being trampled by firewood collectors, the health of the forest is much improved and biodiversity loss has been reversed.
  • In addition, Upadhya notes, “farmers realized that they could export perishable farm produce to market?…?and have now diversified into tomatoes, green vegetables, and beans.” And with increased income has come better healthcare, schooling for the village children, and corrugated iron rather than thatched roofs on their houses.
  • Finally, thanks to the increased revenue, the village milkway committee is now able to provide loans to local merchants at interest rates far below those charged by the banks and the moneylenders. “The ropeway,” Upadhya writes, “has thus become not only a transport system but a community-wide benefit provider, thanks to the social capital it has itself generated.”

As obvious as these benefits may seem, constructing, maintaining, and managing the milkway was not a straightforward process.

In 1985 when the Nepali government, with the European Union as the aid donor, initiated a “watershed project” in the area to lessen the likelihood of landslides and floods, poverty-alleviation was not on the agenda. Five years later, the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation, as part of an assessment of the project, raised the question of what kind of aid could actually help the local people. Only then, when it emerged that the cycle of poverty was tied to the making of khuwa, was a diesel-powered ropeway proposed. The idea was not well received.

The ropeway, officials objected, was not part of the authorized watershed project and would be more expensive than planting trees and stabilizing landslides. Beyond that, there was no local expertise to build and operate a ropeway, the Ministry of Forests did not fund transportation projects, and community mobilization was irrelevant because, as Upadhya notes, the whole ropeway idea was “unheard of.” The objections, Thompson points out, reflected the hierarchical view; the individualist and egalitarian voices were silenced. But in 1990, as democracy was restored and a 30-year ban on political parties lifted, the Nepali government and its foreign donors were no longer able to set the development agenda. With other voices able to make themselves heard in the new political context, the ropeway suddenly gained favor and began operating in 1995.

Its rapid economic success raised new concerns. Some worried that funding for road construction would be reduced, and political leaders who had not been involved in the project, and thus could not take the credit for it, began to push for the reinstatement of an old and unusable road as a better alternative. In Bhattedanda itself, squabbles within the milkway management committee eroded its democratic basis and, once the road was repaired, the cable system was shut down. Hierarchy held sway once more.

A few years later, heavy rains washed away the new road and the export of fresh milk came to an abrupt halt. The villagers were suddenly back in their cycle of poverty, boiling down milk into khuwa. They responded by resolving their political differences, reopening the milkway and setting up a new management system. In the process, they converted the power source from imported diesel to local hydroelectricity, making the operation more environmentally friendly and much cheaper.

Who benefits?

The Bhattedanda Milkway provides a good demonstration of a counter-intuitive feature of clumsy solutions: that they enable each set of actors to get more of what they want, and less of what they don’t want, than they would have received if they had silenced the other voices and imposed their own elegant solution.

  • However you choose to measure it, the milkway is economic growth—development as defined in the conventional “aid paradigm”—achieved, moreover, by means of a carefully planned intervention that would never have happened “autonomously.” So those speaking with the hierarchical voice have certainly achieved much of what they wanted.
  • Individualistic actors—the farmers, with their incomes immediately increased by 30 percent, have also come out well, especially when you take into account the host of innovations that have shifted them away from subsistence agriculture into what is an increasingly lucrative form of market gardening.
  • And those who speak with the egalitarian voice have secured the conservation of the forest, along with a convincing demonstration of how to effect the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Moreover, it is the “poorest of the poor” who have benefited most.

And because of the milkway’s success, the ropeway is being extended to even more remote and impoverished villages.

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Last edited: 27 August 2012


Michael Thompson

Senior Research Scholar

Equity and Justice Research Group|Population and Just Societies Program

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