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State of statelessness

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

BLOCKED ARTERY: the Birganj Pathlaiya Highway, Kathmandu's lifeline to the plains and to India, remains blocked for the second week.

First posted on on 01 May, 2009

We like to think that the most neglected and underdeveloped part of Nepal is the Karnali. But the eastern Tarai deos not fare much better.

In just about every development parameter that you care to name, these districts between Bara and Morang lag behind the rest of the country. The infant mortality rate among Dalits here is the highest in Nepal, more women die here at childbirth than in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, female illiteracy is as low as in Kalikot. Gender and caste discrimination here is the most entrenched in Nepal, so the downtrodden just don’t stand a chance. It is no wonder that the war never stopped here. The Maoists who joined the Madhesi movement just kept on fighting.
All along the 16 km stretch of what is euphemistically called a “highway” from Janakpur to Jaleswor there are stark signs that there is no government in this lawless border region.Huge tipper trucks transporting boulders to feed the infrastructure boom across the border in Bihar lurch across the cratered road, raising dust storms. Telephone poles stand forlorn, the wires have been repeatedly stolen by copper smugglers from across the border, so the government has just stopped replacing them. Hook wires connect every household to power lines along the road—the electricity pilferage rate in this part of the Tarai is 75 percent. Every rooftop has an antenna pointing south: to magnify the signal of Indian mobile networks so people can make cheaper phone calls with Indian SIM cards. This entire stretch of highway was once lined by stately eucalyptus planted by a Panchayat anchaladhish 35 years ago. Few scraggly ones remain, and even those have had their barks stripped off for fuel by villagers. Fertile fields that could yield three paddy harvests a year if they were irrigated wear a desolate, dessicated look in this prolonged drought.

Since the Madhes movement in 2007, Kathmandu seems even less bothered about doing anything here, and has left the Tarai to its own devices. This is now the territory of political militants and criminals, and often they are indistinguishable. The politicization of crime and the criminalisation of politics has spawned a slew of militant groups with terrifying names like Tarai Cobra, Virus Killers, and even something mysteriously called the Carribean Forum.

“The only reason Pahadis are not being killed anymore is because there hardly any left,” says one government employee ruefully in Janakpur.

An even more ominous sign of the lawlessness here is the recent mob lynchings of people suspected of being child traffickers. In the past three weeks seven people, four of them women, have been either burnt alive or beaten to death in villages along the Janakpur-Dhalkebar highway. A visitor stops by the side of the road to ask children playing by the wayside for directions, villagers gather around suspiciously and before he can explain who he is, they start attacking him with hoes and picks. The reason for the paranoia is the disappearance of at least a dozen children aged 5-10 from these parts by Indian gangs who supply children to beggar syndicates, or sell their kidneys, hearts or eyes to human organ traffickers. But three of the eight who were killed have been innocent visitors or mentally handicapped beggars.

“The brutality and violence is shocking, it is as if something has snapped in society,” says one writer in Jaleswor. Ever since Janakpur Today FM reporter Uma Singh was hacked to death by five knife-wielding assassins in her rented room in Janakpur in January, there is a sense of fear among professionals, either Pahadi or Madhesi. In fact, it seems as if the message from Uma Singh’s killers was in the method of her killing. Suspects have been detained, but most locals believe the real killers, who re relatives or supporters of ex-Maoist Matrika Yadav, are at large and have political protection.

As we head east to west in nepa-laya’s ‘Frames of War’ documentary tour, travel is becoming more and more uncertain. Even the police, who are the only visible presence of the state, are unable to open roads closed by strikes, bandas and blockades. We are now seriously contemplating travelling from Janakpur to Birganj via India, like the days before the East-West Highway was built in the 1970s.

But that night there is divine intervention. A massive thunderstorm dumps heavy rain on the thirsty land that hasn’t had a shower for eight months.The hail and wind clears the road of all protesters, so the crew can travel to Birganj. However, the next day the highway between Birganj and Patlaiya is blocked again—this time by three groups simultaneously- the Tharus, anti-secularlism Hindu groups and villagers demanding compensation for an accident victim. Learning from last night’s rain, the Tharus have pitched a tent in the middle of the intersection at Patlaiya to prevent vehicles from passing day or night, rain or shine.

The police has no orders to clear the road. In Kathmandu, the government is too distracted by the crisis of the week over the army, to pay any attention to all this.

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