It is within living memory for a large number of Nepalis that travelling to other parts of the country meant going down to the railhead near the Indian border and taking a detour through Indian territory to reach their destinations.
It was precisely to avoid this dependence on India that the idea for an east-west highway was first conceived by King Mahendra, after whom the it is now named. After 35 long years of construction, and with assistance from India, the UK, the USA and the former Soviet Union the road was finally completed earlier this year. The 1,024 km Mahendra Highway now connects the borders rivers of Mechi in the east with the Mahakali in the west.
With the construction of 22 bridges in the western section of the road, it becomes finally possible to travel across the length of Nepal throughout the year. And it is people living in the far western region who are going to benefit from it most as their economy is better integrated with the rest of the kingdom. The far west is home to approximately 10 percent of Nepal's population. Until the bridges were up, the region would remain totally cut off from the rest of the kingdom during monsoon season. People from here depended on India for everything from health care to employment, education to consumer items. Even today, the Kailali Chamber of Commerce and Industry says that Nepali consumers buy goods worth Rs1.5 million every day from the Gauri Phanta border market in India alone.
Thedistricts of the far west are at the bottom of the country's social and development ladder. Poverty is higher here than elsewhere. Development experts say it is the historical lack of proper representation from this region in Kathmandu that is behind the neglect.
Local hotelier Anand Raj Joshi says, "The far west has been neglected for years The Centre always preferred to concentrate its development expenditure and development concerns for the east. Far westerners may not forget the neglect for some time to come." For Joshi, the neglect becomes vivid every time he visits his
ancestral home in the capital and sees the investment lavished on the capital and its environs.
It is not only physically that the far west is removed from Kathmandu. There is a psychological distance as well. Anthropologist Shaubhagya Shah says the rulers in Kathmandu have never been concerned enough to narrow the emotional distance between the far west and the capital. Writes Shah: "Given the political will, geographical obstacles can be easily surmounted. Otherwise, how could a desert country like Israel or a mountainous Switzerland have developed?"
Things are changing slightly. Karunakar Pandey, a journalist from Dhangadi, feels more and more people in the west now identify with ppenings elsewhere in Nepal. However, narrow political concerns have the potential to easily wreck any attempt at uniting them with the rest of the country. During the last general elections, a CPN-UML candidate in Kailali appealed to migrants from east of the Karnali River to unite and vote him to parliament.
Cultural and regional differences found among the districts in the far west region
are twisted and used by leaders for their own political gains. The tarai districts like Kailali and Kanchanpur are home to migrants from hill districts both east and west of the Karnali river, and various organisations are active in the name of protecting cultural identities, which in turn means emphasising sub-regional
A Nepali Congress MP elected from a far western district told us that this division among far westerners weakens their regional voice at the Centre. "The Centre is reluctant to hear the opinion from far west. But it's our fault too. We too are divided," he says.
Damodar Bhatta is from the far west and a member of the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Kathmandu. He says it is the failure of the Centre to maintain a regional balance on infrastructure and essential services that is responsible for the alienation of the far west. "All the powerful ministers come from the east, and they hardly feel obliged to develop the west," he says.
Perhaps now that the East- West Highway is complete it will serve to bridge the emotional void. After all, that was part of King Mahendra's grand plan when he conceptualised the road.