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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 26 New Delhi June 16, 2018

India, Nepal and the Janakpur Momentum

Monday 18 June 2018

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Everyday, buses full of pilgrims and tourists get stranded near Bhitta Mor, the noisy and chaotic gateway to Janakpur on the Indo-Nepal border in Bihar. Bhitta Mor is a dingy place with muddy roads (under water during mon-soons) where buses, bullock carts and rickshaws compete for the same space with same speed. Since most of the incoming visitors do not know what bad roads are all about, their palpable frustration is often apparent. However, such things could become history if Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Janakpur was any indication. The visit underlines Janakpur’s potential in bridging the political gap in Indo-Nepal relations.

Janakpur is not only the religious citadel of Hindu mythology revolving around Janki (Sita, wife of Lord Rama); it is also the cultural capital of Mithila tradition that criss-crosses the Indo-Nepal border, defying theoretical constructs of ‘imagined communities’. The nearest railway station in India, Janakpur Road (Pupri), in fact, lies 45 km from main Janakpur. The constitutional reforms in Nepal has also meant that the city has become the administrative capital of one of the provinces in the new federal arrangement. However, like many other Terai cities of Nepal, the civic infrastructure in Janakpur is pitiable. The situation in northern cities of Bihar like Darbhanga, Madhubani and Sitamarhi is no better.

A few days before the prime ministerial visit to Janakpur, the Bihar Chief Minister had inaugurated the maiden Janki festival in Sitamarhi district. Janki was born in Punaura village near Sitamarhi city and the city’s Janki temple is as venerated as the one of Janakpur where she lived as the daughter of King Janaka of Mithila. The Janki festival was part of the larger project of the Ramayana circuit meant to establish and popularise other spots like Panth Pakhar, Phulhar, Ahilya Sthan etc. In flagging off a bus service from Janakpur to Ayodhya, a welcome initiative has been taken to connect the Ramayana circuit cities with each other. Both are temple cities, connected with the Rama-Sita story. In fact, the priests of many temples in these twin cities are common.

However, the maiden bus service is only tip of the bilateral collaboration iceberg that Janakpur can facilitate between India and Nepal. In due course, we may see a network of connection between Janakpur and Indian cities in the Ramayana circuit. India is working on some mega infrastructure projects on its side that would certainly benefit Janakpur and the rest of Nepal. The 160 km Chakia-Jainagar National Highway No 104 is progressing well and would augment vehicular movement along the border. Similarly, a 70 km new National Highway No 527 C (Majhauli-Charaut) is being proposed that would ease up north to south access for commuters coming from Janakpur. Janakpur can get connected to Patna once the Jainagar gauge conversion is complete on the Nepal side on the only train network it has. Overall, the full network of road and rail infrastructure needs to be speeded up to cities across the border and connect them with each other.

Janakpur also has a small but vibrant airport. The incoming tourists to Janakpur are mostly from India. However, they cannot land in Janakpur since it is not connected to any Indian city. Many would prefer a flight schedule from Kolkata, Patna or Lucknow to Janakpur than taking the painful road or rail journey. The incoming tourists from different corners of India would not mind paying a bit more for these air facilities. Additionally, for people living in the border areas of Bihar, taking a flight from Patna is a nightmare. Janakpur can easily fill in the gaps and even complement the upcoming Darbhanga airport. However, the bypass road from Janakpur airport to the border town of Matihani in Nepal and Madhwapur (on the Indian side) is yet to be paved obstructing swift movement of commuters.

The areas in and around Janakpur are also infamous for notorious rivers. The Adhwara group of rivers, comprising almost two dozen rivers, create havoc during monsoons not only around the Janakpur area but also in Sitamarhi -Madhubani-Darbhanga districts across the border. The embankment policy has not yielded much dividend since many of these rivers are notorious for route change. Together, India and Nepal can tame these rivers and convert the flood areas into a zone of prosperity for sugar and other cash crops since the rivers have water throughout the year.

Unlike the hilly parts of Nepal that are propelled by anti-India sentiments, the areas in and around Janakpur engender tremendous goodwill for India’s developmental efforts. Every family in the region has kinship linkages across the border. Maithili is the dominant language in this part of Nepal. The political psychology of anti-India semantics got exposed in the civic reception for Prime Minister Modi where all speakers sang paeans for India and its democratic values. This despite the fact that at the political level, the Oli regime is inclined towards China and is gradually trying to reduce its dependence upon India. Successive regimes in Kathmandu have also encouraged a larger role for China in the Terai region. Though Beijing is yet to formally open a branch of the China Study Centre (CSC) in Janakpur, clandestine activities by the CSC through the other 10 branches in Nepal cannot be ruled out. Open border, poor infrastructure and near absence of defensive military presence in North Bihar make it difficult to monitor Chinese activities.

Modi’s Janakpur momentum establishes it as a strategic gateway and a bridge in reaching out to Nepal. New Delhi can use Janakpur as a ‘black box’ to induce changes in the goals, beliefs and perceptions of the Nepali political elite and establish irreversible linkages at the political and societal level. Perhaps, there lies some hope of weaning our small neighbour away from coming under the ‘Chinese sphere of influence’.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views conveyed here are his personal.

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