If Local Development Minister Purna Kumar Sherma has his way, this will be one among 41 new municipalities that will be added in the next 100 days. This certainly qualifies to be a town: it has a petrol pump, a direct night-bus service to Kathmandu, half-a-dozen private schools, a physician's clinic with an attached drugstore, and at least two new temples under construction. But does that make it a municipality?
The news stall is actually a stationary shop-cum-ticket counter for 'express' buses to the capital. There are no 'national' newspapers. With a straight face, he explains that there is little point in selling newspapers which treat Sarlahi as if it were Somalia.
Unlike strained relationship between Pahadis and Madhesis in Lahan, the two communities appear to be at peace with each other here. In some educated Madhesi households, parents continue to talk to their children in Nepali. Pahadis can be seen tending to their bullocks in lungis tucked at the waist. But neighbours have started harbouring supicions about each other.
The distinction between 'us' and 'them' crops up repeatedly in casual conversations. A Yadav says that his friends across the fence have bought a house in Hetauda, but he has nowhere to go.
The acrimony between the ruling and ruled communities has a long history. In the early sixties when DDT made the Tarai safer for Pahadis by removing malaria, King Mahendra settled retired soldiers in a forest clearing that came to be called Hajar Bigha. In nearby Murtiya, loyalists of the royal family were granted large tracts of farms. Primarily, it was to raise the productivity of these new settlements that the Manusmara Irrigation Project was built.
Most Murtiya grantees of government largesse remained absentee landlords. Over the years, many moved north to the highway where they have turned Nawalpur into the national capital of Chure Bhawar Unity Society. Distant relatives, indigent cousins or trusted retainers look after their possessions for most of the year. Since the property market has shot through the roof after the remittance boom, some of the original landowners have sold their holdings.
In normal circumstances, this would hardly have raised any eyebrows. But in these ethnically charged times, when even an accident on the highway acquires communal colour, land transactions are being interpreted as "ethnic cleansing" by one side and retreat of "exploiters" by others.
Media reports of Pahadis fleeing the Tarai are exaggerated. Only Pahadis that had acquired land for free, or built houses with bribes, are leaving as awareness levels rise. No Pahadi plough-holder, cowherd, teacher, shopkeeper or mechanic has left the Tarai under duress. But the runaways are giving entire Madhes a bad name. Perceptions, however, are ghosts impossible to banish. A Sah professional slyly admitted in private that he hasn't built a new house in the hope of buying "escapee property" on the cheap.
Ethnic friction in today's Tarai-Madhes can still be resolved. But if the hatred is allowed to incubate there could be horrendous consequences because the grievances on the ground are genuine. The loss of privilege of the ruling class is raw. This is a chasm that only intense politicisation can bridge.
Clashes at Tri Chandra Campus in Kathmandu over a construction contract were extremely unfortunate. But it had Pahadis, Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits and women on both sides of the barricade. It is when the polarisation becomes ethnic that things spin out of control. That has to be prevented at all costs.