Chasing the chimera of tourism developmentTourism can thrive in Province 2, but policymakers must not be swayed by unrealistic plans.
Janakpur airport has finally succeeded in installing functional landing lights. The runway has been freshly paved sometime ago. The re-fuelling depot of the Nepal Oil Corporation does maintain a few tankers near the tarmac, but their content and capacity remain a closely guarded secret. Inquiries fail to reveal whether the airport has enough stock of aviation fuel for emergencies. The new terminal building has been ‘nearly complete’ for almost five years. It’s still getting finishing touches.
The condition of city roads has significantly improved. Footpaths, however, continue to be hugely inadequate. It shows that urban planners of Nepal are obsessed with the movement of cars rather than of people and display scant regard for pedestrians in their designs. Even at midnight, most street lights are functional and a brooming machine sucks dust off main thoroughfares early in the morning. It’s pleasing to be in town at this time of the year.
The capital of Province 2 has more political workers per square kilometre than almost anywhere else in the country. There is a valid reason for such a ludicrous situation. The city has almost no industry. What was once the biggest cigarette factory in Nepal now houses the Province’s capital complex.
Unlike other frontier towns of Madhesh, there is no urban centre of much significance across the border in Bihar, which implies that the city gets most of its supplies all the way from Birgunj. Cross-border trading with attendant benefits is thus not a lucrative proposition here.
What has flourished instead is the ‘manpower’ industry. Dhanusha sends more able-bodied youngsters in the labour markets of West Asia and Malaysia than any other district in the country. Agriculture has been hit hard by the incessant shortage of labour. Production of food grains has remained stagnant if not actually declined. Fish ponds are being dug in rice-fields while vegetable patches have made way for fast-growing trees.
Fisheries and commercial forestry don’t create many jobs. The only option for youths that have failed to migrate is to be bag-carriers of political operators. They routinely lineup at the airport to see off or receive politicos with garlands of marigold in hand. Incidentally, most of the marigold in the local market is sourced from Kolkata.
After the Ayodhya Verdict, the Ramanandi sect of Hinduism is much in the news. The Hindutva fanatics have succeeded in legitimising the unlawful destruction of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and obtaining the mandate of the Supreme Court of India for the construction of a temple of Ram Lala—the baby Ram—on the exact spot.
There is little, if any, controversy over the maternal home of Goddess Janaki, the consort of Lord Rama. Even though not one among the four holiest pilgrimages, Janakpur is considered to be a significant dham. Little wonder, the potential of religious tourism excites policymakers so much. Howsoever misplaced, expectations that a resurgent Ramanandi sect of Ayodhya will do wonders for Janakpur are rife even among the supposedly secular intelligentsia of the town.
Pilgrims pour into the town during Bibaha Panchami, Ram Navami and other auspicious occasions. The city, however, lacks the infrastructure to attract high-end tourists that come on pilgrimage but can be lured into turning their visits to short vacations. Among many other Vaishnavs, the Ramanandi sect has quite a few prosperous Gujarati followers. Some of them do make it to Janakpur for ritual worship but prefer to fly back to Kathmandu or drive down to Patna without spending even a night in town. Visitors spending less than 24 hours can’t be considered tourists.
In addition to remittances, agricultural development holds immense potential. The so-called Haryana model of economic transformation combined agriculture with tourism development in the early-1970s to benefit from its proximity to New Delhi. Investments in infrastructure then lured industrialists and the state boomed.
Planners of the province are looking longingly for visitors other than Indians that seldom come to their part of the country. For long, the Kathmandu-Chitwan-Pokhara circuit, combining heritage, wildlife and mountainous lakes, remained the ‘golden triangle’ of Nepali tourism. Despite decades of hype, Lumbini is yet to emerge as a significant destination by itself.
A new international airport may help increase footfalls at the birthplace of the Shakya prince, but by how much is as yet uncertain. The Haj pilgrimage is obligatory for pious Muslims, a visit to the land where Prince Siddhartha was born isn’t so in any sect of Buddhism. Bodhgaya and Sarnath are considered equally sacrosanct, if not more so.
Adding Janakpur to the to-do list of tourists in the flatlands of Nepal isn’t going to be easy. Perhaps a different strategy is required to sell the cross-border region of Videhas, Karnats and Maithils to the world.
Climbers go up the mountains because, as George Herbert Leigh Mallory (1886-1924) is supposed to have quipped, they are there. Seekers of adventure love to explore the wilderness. Historic monuments draw crowds to look, admire and wonder at the ingenuity of past masters. Apart from pilgrims, why should holidaymakers or vacationers find it worth their while to come to Janakpur? That’s a question planners must wrestle with.
An obvious answer could be that descendants of ancient Videhas spread all over the world may be lured to the centre of their civilisational heritage. Hard figures are difficult to come by and anecdotal estimates vary between 70 million and 100 million, but there is very little doubt that people claiming the Videhas as their ancestors are to be found on all continents.
The family of languages in the region includes, but isn’t limited to, Angika, Bajjika, Bhojpuri, Magahi and Maithili. Tirhuta and Kaithi scripts are on the verge of extinction and the family of languages has largely adopted Devanagari. Except for Maithili, most other languages of the family has fallen into the lap of either Hindi or Nepali in everyday use. But when it comes to folktales and songs of rites of passage, all these tongues are still vibrant.
Tourism to the roots is likely to emerge a lucrative category as complexities of life increase. Mithila painting thrives, but more needs to be done to improve folk drama, theatre, traditional performing arts and street plays.
Visitors need to eat and pleasing the palate is a fine art. A lot has to be done to refine Maithili cuisine than the combination of fried fresh-water fish served with puffed rice and the extravaganza of deep-fried taruwa and lightly cooked bagharuwa. Similarly, it’s no use to frown puritanically over hard drinks. Alcohol has been part of every great civilisation. Palm tree tadi and the brew made from Mahuwa flowers hold the possibility of being marketed as the region’s specialities.
Investments in the improvement of water bodies require urgent attention. Infrastructure for rural tourism has to be created before it can be marketed. A strict no-no should be the casino tourism that has sprouted all along the Indo-Nepal border. Province 2 can become a unique tourism destination. As the saying goes, the impossible requires a little more effort and lots of creativity.
What do you think?
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