BIRGANJ - The tarai is emerging into a springtime of hope after a harsh winter in which towns like Birganj did not see the sun for weeks on end. Now the sun is out, the air is balmy, the mood is relaxed and there is a cautious expectation that the country may finally have turned the corner.
Birganj has always been regarded as a gateway to Kathmandu. The main business here is business. And trade. Hundreds of trucks loaded with all kinds of goods wait for their turn at the Birgunj Customs every day. On the Indian side in Raxaul, the line of container trucks stretches far into the distance.
The road is perpetually gridlocked with trailers carrying industrial steel, tankers ferrying petroleum products, containers filled with consumer durables and trucks laden with everything from fruits and vegetables to medicines and construction materials. The reigning confusion is made worse by one-horse carts, rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, push-carts and cycles that ply between the two border towns all day. The stink of raw hide stored on the Nepali side and the stench of open toilets from the southern bank of the Sirsiya River make the border wait at Sankaracharya Gate an insufferable ordeal.
The traffic on the Indian side of the border is made worse by a railway crossing. By every norm of civil engineering, the Raxaul crossing needs a grade separation. I wonder if the Nepali side raised this question during the latest round of endless bilateral trade talks this week in Kathmandu.
Had the Birgunj Dry Port been in operation, the rail link would have reduced congestion on this road. This container terminal built with a World Bank loan would make landlocked Nepal's access to the sea so much smoother and cheaper. But for some mysterious reason that must be locked up in the byzantine corridors of power in Kathmandu and New Delhi, the port is still lying idle two years after its completion. The Indians have extended the rail link from Raxaul to Birganj, and have already done several test runs. But there are no locomotives plying on it.
The Maisthan grapevine has it that the Indian side is seeking permission to open a commercial office in Birganj and that is the pre-condition to opening the container port. Assuming it to be true, most rumours in this country turn out to be true in the end, there is no reason why Nepal shouldn't allow India to have an officer of the Indian embassy stationed here. What's the problem with that? After all, Shital Niwas has its own commercial attach? in Kolkata, and it may need more such representatives in South India soon. Opening diplomatic missions in commercially important cities is mutually beneficial.
Like most other trading towns, the politics of Birganj is largely conservative. The Nepal Communist Party (UML), the flagship organisation of petit bourgeoisie, has very little presence here. And even though the Nepali Congress has managed to keep elective offices in its grip, it is the ex-Panchas of different shades who wield real clout in Adarsha Nagar. Former city father Bimal Srivastava is still a partyless person, and he continues to swear by his pro-authoritarian "politics for development" slogan.
The new game in town for the stalwarts of the Panchayat is collecting signatures from all and sundry to petition the king so they can also publicly felicitate the king like the rival city of Biratnagar. The signature campaign has been in full swing for quite some time, and given the access that Bimal Srivastava is said to have to the palace, it would not be surprising if he manages to convince palace officials that another public felicitation of the king is the number one priority of the country at this juncture.
The membership drive of the Nepal Patriotic Front borders on extortion. They thrust a receipt in the hands of unsuspecting shopkeepers and promise to come back to collect payment. Are these mandaleys-on-motorcycles, or is it a benign political force? No one seems to know, and the political climate is so hazy that no one dares ask.
Lack of public-spirited civic organisations in Parsa district is worrisome. A scandal surrounding the private control of public land in the old bus park has fizzled somewhat, but no one has cared to raise a voice against the levelling of Chhapkaiyan Pokhari. At the end of a prolonged litigation, its owners have staked claim over the land. But do they have the moral right to deny access to a place that has been public for as long as one remembers?
A pond-be it private or public-is a common. Its conversion for private benefit must be resisted. If there are no laws to protect commons, they need to be made. But the parties that should have raised such issues are themselves in a state of paralysis. There was hope that former Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai would use his moral force to save the pond, but they have given up on him here.
In this politically numb environment, the pro-Congress Nepal Students' Association recently held its convention. Student reps from all over the country elected a new set of officers. If the union has to gear itself up for another political struggle, it needs a leader from its own ranks. As long as that doesn't happen, or more appropriately, is prevented from happening by a meddlesome parent party, the student organisation will continue to float aimlessly.
The students are now gone, and it is business as usual along the Sirsiya Bridge. Unlike the preoccupations in Kathmandu, the main concern here is the fate of the next round of Indo-Nepal trade talks. The more adventurous traders speculate about its impact on politics as well. Strangely, despite a long foggy winter, Birgunjelis haven't lost hope.