In terms of land mass and economic status, Karnali Province is for Nepal what Tibet is for China. According to the 2011 national census, with 5.93 per cent of the national population, Karnali covers one fifth area of Nepal. With just 0.22 per cent of the national population, Tibet covers one eighth of Chinese land area.
Population density (56 per square kilometre) of Karnali is 26 times that of Tibet. The latest available data (2019) show, human development index (HDI) of Karnali as 0.538 (against national 0.587) and that of Tibet as 0.585 (against national 0.761). GDP per capita of Karnali was US$ 677 (against national US$ 1071) and that of Tibet was US$ 7559 (against national per capita income of US$ 10484). This shows in domestic comparison, Karnali does not lag far behind in HDI but it does so in per capita income.
Let us compare Nepal with China of 1970. During that time, GDP per capita in US$ was 72 for Nepal while it was US$ 113 for China. Life expectancy was 42.2 years in Nepal and 59.1 years in China. Literacy rate was 13.9 per cent for Nepal and 29 per cent for China. The 1975 HDI was 0.291 for Nepal while it was 0.63 for China. Now, half a century later, China has made such a tremendous progress as reflected in the opening paragraph above. Plenty of literature is available highlighting the Chinese model of development. Taking Tibet as an example, let us see what Karnali can learn from Chinese experience.
Geological proximity Outside China, Tibet borders with Nepal, India, Bhutan and Myanmar. Outside Nepal, Karnali borders just China. If Tibet is Chinese gateway to South Asia, Karnali is a gateway of India and Nepal to Mansarovar and Mount Kailash. Such geological proximity can be utilised by Karnali as an advantage in promoting its industry, trade, commerce and tourism.
Karnali and Tibet are linked by the Humla Karnali River that flows from the lake called Rakshastal which receives glacial water from Mount Kailash. Many Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Bon devotees visit Mount Kailash and Manasarovar lying adjacent to Rakshastal. Karnali provides a short-cut, easy access to these religious sites. Learning from Tibet, which has become a hub for both domestic and foreign tourists, Karnali can boost its economy by utilising its proximity to these two sacred sites in Tibet.
Tibet has implemented the old Chinese saying, ‘to get rich, build roads first’. By 2020, the sum of highways in Tibet reached 116,000 kilomentres, which is a 49 per cent increase from 2015. That is, 7500-km road was built annually for the last five years. Emphasis was put on the domestic connectivity. There are only two functional international highways in Tibet, and both lead to Nepal. Tibet has been linked to rest of China by the famous Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Among five airports in Tibet, only Lhasa Gonggar Airport serves international flights, and it links Kathmandu. On domestic front, now there are 130 air routes covering 61 cities. This clearly demonstrates Tibetan priority to domestic connectivity. This can be an important connectivity hint to Karnali.
Tibet is very rich in natural resources as it is the land of mountains and lakes. Tibet has about 200 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of water resources, accounting for 30 per cent of China’s total. The 50-kilometre section of the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon alone has 70 million kWh capacity. Tibet has put emphasis on environment protection while utilising the natural resources for economic growth. Both for environmental conservation and promotion of lifestyles, Tibet has facilitated organised settlements. Nomads are settled with government support. Such developments have made providing education, healthcare, security and other services easier.
Karnali can consider promoting planned settlements, especially the relocating of settlements prone to landslides and flooding. Such initiation would help minimise the mishaps of primary school students being drowned or carried away by rivers, sleeping residents getting stuck and killed inside homes collapsing under slides and floods, lonely people being attacked by wild animals, and the like. Notwithstanding the freezing temperatures outside, Tibetan greenhouses are producing fresh vegetables round the year. Tibet has established and financed research institutions aiming to be self-sufficient in food products, but also an exporter of highly preferred high altitude organic products.
Mineral water bottled in Tibet has a good market in rest of China. There is high demand for Tibetan medicines, herbs, meat, dairy products and handicrafts. Many technical schools have been established where the students from countryside can live and learn for free. Skills taught include thanka writing, painting, welding, metal works, sewing, mechanical and electrical engineering, computer engineering, and many more.
Fast progress Karnali, though small in area, is a resource bank of Nepal. Its rivers, lakes, medicinal herbs, cultural diversity, more than 50 languages, clean air are unparalleled in Nepal. Karnali can make fast progress if it learns from the modern Tibetan model of emphasis on technical education and productivity. China has a practice of providing financial, technical and skilled human resources to the regions lagging behind. Many a time, such helps are unconditional. Such practices not only help the backward regions in economic development, they also help promote national unity.
Karnali may seek such assistance from slightly richer regions in Nepal. As the whole country is short of capital, attracting investment through investment-friendly policies such as tax exemptions can be a win-win for the both sides.