Nepali Times
Ups And Downs
Road to nowhere



The far western districts of the trans-Karnali get all the attention for being under-developed, but the far eastern mountains of Khotang, Bhojpur, Udaypur and Sindhuli often fall into the cracks.

Consider this: the interiors of these districts are still roadless. Only 18 kilometres of earthen roads have been built in the last 15 years. The health statistics are almost as bad as in Jumla. Khotang is the 46th poorest of Nepal's 75 districts.

After a stomach-churning 14-hour bus ride to Gaighat you need to hike two days up the mountains to reach my home district of Khotang. The bus was filled to capacity because of the holiday season, and a couple dozen more passengers were riding on the roof. The driver seemed to have a death wish and talked non-stop while he negotiated the blind curves. It's a miracle we reached Saune in one piece.

The construction of the Sagarmatha Highway connecting Gaighat, Khotang, Solukhumbu and Okhaldhunga began in 1994 under the aegis of a short-lived UML government. The government changed after nine months. The kangresis wanted another road alignment that catered to their vote bank from Okhaldunga, and the highway went into limbo. Even this stretch of road is only passable after the rains, and it takes three days to walk from Saune to Diktel.

Another dirt road connecting Bhojpur to Khotang was completed last year under the Rural Access Program (RAP), and links the area to Dhankuta. But for those travelling from Kathmandu it is a 200km detour to come this way.

The Hilepani-Halesi to Diktel road has been constructed with community participation and the involvement of the DDC and VDCs along the way. It is the only motorable road in Khotang. But the idea of 'motorable' has to be taken with a pinch of salt: there is no bridge over the Dudh Kosi, and a whole section between Hilepani and Halesi was washed away by a landslide and was never rebuilt. So the Diktel-Halesi section does not connect to any other road. The jeeps that ply here were airlifted by helicopter and the diesel has to be brought in by porters.

This is all good news for young men who haven't got the down payment for a job in the Gulf or Malaysia, or the connections to make it into the Gurkha battalions. There are plenty of portering jobs, and a porter like Dil Kumar Rai, who was carrying rice up from Saune to Diktel, said he saved up to Rs 8,000 a month.

The UML is in power once more, and it has declared that 2010 will be a 'Year of Road Construction'. We'll have to see how much budget is allocated for Khotang and whether it will ever translate into upgrading the existing tracks. Some money has been set aside for the Leguwa-Khotang road but locals say they will believe it when they see it.

The level of cynicism here is so high that the government has an uphill task regaining the trust of the people. For the moment the only way to get to Khotang is by plane and there is such high demand for tickets to Lamidanda and Bhojpur that you have to be a VIP, even if you can afford the fare. Two more STOL airstrips are under construction in Khanidanda and Thamkharka, but it is doubtful if any private airline will fly there, and the state airline just doesn't have enough planes. The far east is as far away as it ever was.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)