Jai Ho, Janakpur
Jai Ho, Janakpur
The news that Janakpur airport was soon going to be connected to international destinations was the talk of the town when I arrived here. Usually, any such news about proposed development projects is greeted with skepticism. This time though there seemed to be genuine optimism. Flights to cities of India, the Gulf, and even Singapore suddenly seemed to transform this rustic town to a metropolis in the minds of many people.
For long, Janakpur has been plagued by underdevelopment despite the attention it receives for its historical and religious significance, and the prominence it has as the administrative and political center for much of the central and eastern Tarai districts. The dilapidated infrastructure of the town exudes the air of a city in decay even as the city continues to extend its limits with half-constructed houses scattered throughout the outskirts of the city. Real estate prices continue to increase steadily (after a sharp decline following the Madhes movement as some of the Pahadi people fled the region) despite the poor condition of roads and inappropriateness of basic services. In fact, the city is growing because of optimism, and from cash from remittance.
This chronic underdevelopment has been the reason why people are usually cynical when it comes to proposed projects of development. The municipality office has been notorious for its corruption in the past. Former mayors have been so discredited by now that despite new opportunities having emerged in the aftermath of the Madhes movement, they failed to make an impression on the people during the CA elections. Locals usually make a comparison with Birgunj where initiatives taken by the municipality has produced successful results, the beautification of Gahriwarwa Mai being the most common example used because of the likelihood of replicating the project here in Janakpur. Similarly, many projects initiated by the central government have either never been started or completed, or when done, have quickly broken down. The mistrust that the people feel towards the political leaders and the Nepal government is palpable.
One of the main reasons why Janakpur became an important center was because of the Ram Swaroop Ram Das Multiple Campus (RR Campus). As people from the Tarai districts found an alternative to studying in India, the city became an attractive destination for students who wanted to pursue an education. Education had already gained importance among the higher castes, and the first generation of the educated class had either gone to the capital or to India to pursue it. With RR Campus, education became more accessible. Today, every election candidate promises to grant it the status of a university, yet this long promised (and once sanctioned) project has yielded nothing. Older people lament the decline of the campus, recounting that this was an institution that once produced the best students of the country. With Purwanchal and Pokhara University both running successfully, people see the stifling of the growth of RR Campus as ethnically motivated, as a deliberate effort by the government to exclude the Madhesi community.
Janakpur Zonal Hospital is a similar story. This hospital that serves thousands of impoverished villagers from villages near and far has been plagued by allegations of corruption. Doctors are said to refuse treatment in the hospital urging the patients to seek out their private clinics. The hospital remained without an administrator for a long time. There have been no improvements or additions in the hospital for more than a decade. Not surprisingly, the hospital is overcrowded, with patients lying on the floors due to the lack of beds. Again, people make comparisons with BPK Institute of Health Sciences in Dharan and private initiatives in other important cities.
The Madhes movement brought with it a sense of optimism among the people. Regardless of how the new federal structure is going to be designed, it seems certain that Janakpur will be the capital of a province (be it Madhes or Mithila). This sense of optimism has been followed by a series of development works that are being carried throughout the city and its periphery. The bumpy road from Dhalkebar to Janakpur, which makes the drive longer by an hour, is rapidly being reconstructed. Houses that encroached on government property are being demolished and the roads widened. Even the fabled Hulaki Highway is believed to be under construction. Street lights have been installed. National and international organizations have been researching the area to explore possibilities of sustainable development and tourism.
To understand Janakpur, it is important to understand its nature as a city made for the neighboring villages. It is these villages that bring life to the city, it is to them that the market caters. While this may have resulted in a market where it is difficult to procure the latest accessory or other trendy goods, it is where the villagers that have only just emerged from vicious poverty traps take the first steps in the ladder of prosperity. The remittance money has been instrumental in the revitalization of Janakpur, with most of the new houses being built belonging to the middle and lower castes gradually moving from the villages to the city, even as the upper class leaves the city. Many upper-castes see this as a decline in the spirit of Janakpur but changes happening to the city make it clear that it will be the rise of the middle and lower castes that will ultimately shape the zeitgeist of the city.
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