But it’s not on the road to Mithila
JANAKPUR – A day before the Vivah Panchami festival, it was impossible to walk on the city’s thoroughfares. Two days later, the groom and his party had already left for Ayodhya, the bride had returned to her sanctum sanctorum, and all the pilgrims had gone to Gadhimai for the greatest sacrificial show on earth.
The festivities failed to attract high-profile visitors this year. The three celebrities to grace the ritual marriage of the Hindu deities Ram and Sita were all has-beens – the ‘inactive’ VP Parmanand Jha, former PM KP Bhattarai and controversial ‘godman’ Pilot Baba from India. Unlike in the past, nobody from the former royal family in Kathmandu showed up and DPM Bijay Gachhadar preferred to helicopter into the killing fields of Bariyapur.
The owner of an eatery near the Barahbigha grounds points towards makeshift toilets erected by the municipality for pilgrims and complains, “These would have been all full. This year the pilgrims left immediately for Bara and there was no business from the very next day.”
But other than these annual festivals, Janakpur’s not even a tourist town. With the cigarette factory and flour mills closed, there are no industries worth the name here. All trade and commerce is local, as Janakpur is not on the road to Kathmandu, and is far away from the rail links to Calcutta. It doesn’t even have a university or a proper hospital. And yet land prices are higher here than either Biratnagar or Birganj. Like many urban centres of the middle hills in Nepal, the prosperity of this settlement is based on remittances.
Manpower agencies and money transfer units do brisk business throughout the year. Planes fly full five times a day. A major portion of remittances goes into land and houses. The rest finds its way to the narrow street between the Janaki and Ram temples, where jewellery shops have driven out utensil sellers and clothiers.
The management of Janaki temple too has gone commercial: prasad is now sold from an outlet within the temple premises. Priests at other shrines have learnt how to fleece unsuspecting devotees in the name of ‘special puja’ and ‘milk, honey and ghee baths for holy shaligrams’. Unsurprisingly, Gulf returnees are the most generous worshippers and the most profligate spenders at the beer bars and rooftop restaurants.
The perils of the remittance economy are impossible to miss. Conspicuous consumption – once considered sinful – is now fashionable. Containers that bring in consumer goods from Birganj and beyond have to return empty, as this region has nothing to export. The lure of jobs abroad has sapped agriculture of energy, innovation and investment. Youngsters that are left behind fall prey to armed gangs. The nexus between politics and crime is a worldwide phenomenon; here it is as naked as across the border in Bihar.
Private schools don’t teach, they guarantee ‘First Division’ for a fee. Medical practitioners function as the referral agents of nursing homes in Kathmandu. Touts abound outside court premises. The most belligerent rickshaw-wallahs in the country are to be found here. Shopkeepers behave as if they couldn’t care less about the customer on the counter. And yet, despite visible signs of decay and despondency, people in the street don’t appear to be desperate to leave. It’s the other way round, in fact; more settlers are building houses as the town grows in all directions.
Unlike the oppressive pessimism that hangs thick at social gatherings in Kathmandu, everybody in Janakpur seems to think that things can only get better. Faith is probably the source of this undying optimism: since Mithila’s past has been glorious, the future can’t be otherwise. Meanwhile, all that needs to be done is to endure the present. And therein lies the root of all the problems: there’s no need to exert yourself if you are destined to be great anyway!
Growing towns like Janakpur require heavy investment in infrastructure to cope with their increasing populations. But if one thing were to be prioritised over all else, it has to be waste management. For this boom town, the road to greatness runs along a functioning sewer and passes through an incinerator.
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