Nepali Times
"Does Kathmandu care about us?"


The clock in our hotel in Chandranigapur has just struck 8PM and suddenly the highway is engulfed in silence.

This used to be a town that never slept. Buses plied every 20 minutes and eight o'clock onwards was rush hour for bus passengers stopping off for food. These days, there is just the sound of shutters being rolled down, the vendors and jhalmuri wallas wheeling away their carts to reach home before curfew. Only the street dogs are still out and their barking punctuates the still night.

All it takes is one trip along Nepal's highways to see how much the country has deteriorated. Four months after the royal takeover people here live in constant fear, intimidation, mental stress, injustice and harassment. And they are asking, "Weren't things supposed to get better?"

We travelled in buses from Kakarbhitta on our eastern border to Kawasoti in central Nepal along the East-West Highway, Nepal's artery. Jhapa used to be known as a district of educated, hospitable and talkative people. It is now unrecognisable. No one speaks to strangers anymore and if they do it is a perfunctory word or two at a shop. There is no eye contact, no smile.

The east had escaped most of the ravages of the conflict till two years ago, not anymore. As police stations were pulled back for fear of Maoist attacks, maobadis, khaobadis and dacoits of every hue have filled the vacuum. The jatras and festivals that used to be a significant part of tarai life have gradually diminished. People don't travel home anymore for fear of harassment by security forces who think they are Maoists, Maoists who think they are spies or highway robbers who just want to steal everything you have.

If the movement of people is restricted, the movement of farm produce, consumer goods have come to a virtual standstill. No one knows when there is a blockade and no one wants to risk travel. Many dairy farmers don't take the risk of producing milk anymore. Vegetables, ghiu, honey, mushrooms and sugarcane from rural areas have no market.

Services like telephones, electricity, roads, health posts that had taken decades to be built have been either destroyed or abandoned. Development has come to a grinding halt. If the Maoists haven't bombed telephone relay towers, the state has removed existing VHF phones on security grounds. The NEA has long given up trying to collect money from its customers.

Itahari is on the junction of the East-West Highway with the Dharan road. The bustling market here has become nearly a ghost town. Even till last year, shopkeepers here slept barely three hours a day such was the rush of customers. Today, Itahari goes to sleep at 7PM. "Itahari is finished," says the town's former mayor, Sarbadhoj Sawa.

But as we travel westwards, things get progressively worse. Siraha and Saptari have seen recent fighting, bus passengers have been literally caught in the crossfire between Maoists and the RNA. Then there are armed anti-Maoist groups like the Tarai Jantantrik Morcha which are fanning communal flames by trying to rid Nepali-speakers from the tarai villages that it controls. Nepali-speaking health workers and teachers are under pressure to leave.

In Nawalparasi the scars of recent vigilante violence haven't healed. Thirty-six people, most of them innocent villagers were killed in vigilante attacks and Maoist retaliation in the past two months. The vigilantes are local criminals who have been used in the past as guns for hire by anchaladishes during the Panchayat, by political parties during elections in the 1990s and by the Maoists. But now they are being encouraged by the state to wipe out the Maoists.

By the time we reach Kawasoti, it is clear that what remains of Nepal's economy is now on the verge of collapse. The state is losing its revenue because of the drop in trade across the Indian border, the farmers are losing their income because they can't sell their produce, ordinary villagers are terrorised by Maoists, khaobadis, vigilantes or state security. No one can tell who is who anymore because no one wears uniforms.

Kawasoti was rich in fruits and vegetables but with the uncertainty on the highways no one is growing them anymore. Everyone we met along the highway had one question, "Does Kathmandu care about us?" We had no answer.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)