A town lost in transition
A town lost in transition
The capital of Mithila still searches for a purpose
JANAKPUR?In a town associated with the process of personal growth, childhood memories ride on waves of nostalgia. Until the late-fifties, this sleepy hamlet woke up only during Bibahpanchami-a festival to commemorate the marriage ceremony of Janaki with Ram.
All through rest of the year, priests, ascetics, and devotees took dips in its innumerable ponds several times a day and chanted sonorous prayers at neighboring temples even more often. The town was clean and garbage-free.
The construction of the Janakpur Cigarette Factory transformed the basic character of the pilgrimage town as chimneys replaced chimes of temple bells. Migrant workers began to wash their uniforms in the holy waters of religious tanks and the fish disappeared.
By the late-sixties, the once docile crows were as aggressive as the Russian technicians at the Soviet-built cigarette factory. The ubiquitous pigeons were driven away from the temple cornices. Janakpur was now a budding industrial town with diesel-powered electricity, piped water, an airstrip and a highway?all of it built with Indian assistance. No arrangements were made for the safe disposal of household waste. Almost four decades have passed, but the town still doesn’t have a sewer system or any form of solid waste management.
By the seventies, students from neighbouring districts had begun to flock to Ramswaroop Ramsagar (RR) Degree College as standards across the border deteriorated with the introduction of Karpoori Division?a category that signified ‘passed in all subjects except English’. Right up to the referendum-induced euphoria of early eighties, RR was considered one of the finest centres for science education in the country. And then came the era of student politics directed, controlled and run personally by the Anchaladhis. No one speaks for the quality of RR students anymore.
The eighties belonged to titans of vote-bank politics. Hem Bahadur Malla ferried truckloads of poor devotees to Pashupatinath, Bhola Nath Jha campaigned for building more Hindu temples and Yadavs began to coalesce to influence the election outcome. Crony capitalism created ‘import-export millionaires’ who continue to dominate
social life in the town.
Winds of hope swept the town during the People’s Movement of 1990, only to be blown away with the hard realities of nepotism and favouritism in the distant capital. A new class of fixers emerged who made a comfortable living through their connections with the centres of power in Kathmandu. Many have since emerged as NGO-entrepreneurs flying in and out of town. They were nowhere to be seen when one of the first and biggest anti-Gyanendra rally was organised here prior to the Rhododendron Revolution.
When supremacy of the people was restored and mainstreaming process of Maoists was initiated, hopes were high that the long-neglected Mithila would finally get its due in national life. But once again, the new ruling class refused to address long-standing grievances of Madhesis. Janakpur became the epicenter of the Madhes Uprising. Its success has since ensconced the NC nominee in Shital Nibas, MJF leaders in Singh Darbar and the TMLP stalwarts in the CA. But did the city and its residents get anything for their tireless efforts? Yes, vague promises from politicians and many more NGOs that seem to be doing little else other than perpetually ‘raising awareness’ of the masses.
Unplanned sprawl and urban decay coexist cheek by jowl. The Ramanand Gate may or may not be the biggest in Asia, but it certainly is a monumental waste of scarce recources when not a single public toilet has been built for the convenience of millions of pilgrims that throng to the town every year. Palaces of Raja Man Bahadur Singh and Ram Shamsher or the sprawling mansions of Giris and Mishras wear a desolate look even as new houses are being built in all directions by remittance-beneficiaries.
When the Janakpur-Jayanagar Railway is extended northwards and the BP Lokmarg finally joins the East-West Highway with Kathmandu, regional commerce too will probably shift to Bardibas. Janakpur will then once again be a backwater and have to look for a new role and identity.
In myths mixed with history, the capital of King Janak was known for its devotion to the search of knowledge and that’s a role this town is best suited for. Janakpur needs to revisit its origin and develop a Yagyawalk centre of excellence for higher learning in a tribute to the sage who propounded the theory that wisdom comes from mixing materialism with spiritualism.
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