Announcement of elections affects cross-border thoroughfare and economy of both countries

For Jagdish Paswan, the loss of a day’s work means his family may have to go without a square meal. Every morning, this wage labourer mounts his bicycle and rides into Nepal’s Birganj town, where he transports wood on his handcart to bring home a few hundred rupees. The past five days have been tough.

A strike called by Nepal’s Maoist splinter faction Communist Party of Nepal (Mashal) led by Mohan Baidya Kiran’s for boycott of Tuesday’s Constituent Assembly polls in Nepal has affected livelihoods and businesses of people in Raxaul, Bihar, and Birganj, Nepal, alike. The sealing of the Indo-Nepal border for vehicular and goods movement has compounded their problems.

“I have to go to Birganj daily. I have my cart there. But owing to the strike, the market is closed; no vehicles are plying. I have lost my income of several days,” said Mr. Paswan of Parti tola (hamlet) in Raxaul.

Nearly 500 male residents of the little hamlet go to the Birganj – touted as Nepal’s commercial capital and industrial belt – in search of jobs, which are hard to come by in Raxaul. The factories of Birganj, accessible even on foot, attract a huge work force from Raxaul.

“Our Parti tola,” said Gopal Patel, a small farmer, “comprises mostly of Harijans [Scheduled Caste] and some Kurmi [OBC] homes. Even if we don’t work for one day, our next meal becomes uncertain.”

“People have not eaten or are eating less. Since they have no assets in the form of land to fall back on, they have bought provisions on credit. When the border opens, they would be able to repay,” said Rinku Patel, a tailor who works in Birganj.

The decision to seal the Indo-Nepal border on polling day was taken at a district coordination meeting in Raxaul on November 7. Vehicular traffic was stopped from Sunday 7 p.m. Till Monday, people were allowed to cross the border on foot. But on Tuesday, even that would be banned. The border would open on Wednesday evening.

Birganj falls in the Terai region of Nepal, whose Madhesi culture and habits are similar to Bihar’s, and even has a sizeable Bhojpuri-speaking population.

“The culture, relations and business ties between two towns are so close knit that it is simply not practical to block the border completely, although the police are carrying out constant checks,” Jitender Pandey, sub-divisional police officer said.

Siwan tola, which falls in India as well as Nepal is a classic example. A narrow unmanned dirt track divides the hamlet into two sides. For all practical purposes, it functions as one unit. Even children go to school across the border.

Suresh Prasad, a porter from Siwan tola, Alau – on the Nepal side – is in a bind. “Since the road is sealed, I am not able to go either to Raxaul or to Birganj for work,” he said.

Roshan Kumar, a shopkeeper in Siwan tola, Haraiya – on the Indian side – has been finding it difficult to get supplies for his store. “The SSB [Sashastra Seema Bal] said not to get anything from Raxaul due to the strike,” he said.

Ever since the elections were announced, movement on the cross-border thoroughfare has reduced, affecting the economy on both sides of the Sariswa river, that runs through the two towns and countries.

“The entire Raxaul market has been deserted since the past three days. Never a day passes without a traffic jam on the main road. It is so busy, there is no place to set foot,” said Dinesh Kumar Dhanotia, a cloth trader in Raxaul.

“Raxaul is completely dependent on Nepal. In fact, Raxaul and Birganj share ‘roti-beti ka rishta’ [business and family relations]. We get customers from Birganj, Hetauda, Narayanghat, Kathmandu and Pokhara. Since the announcement of elections, their number has dropped. With the sealing of the border, our business is zero,” Mr. Dhanotia said.

The same desolate look has overcome the bustling bazaars of Birganj. “Due to the ‘hartal’ [strike], no goods are coming in,” lamented Prabhu Shah, an Indian labourer in Birganj. On a given day, 1 p.m. would be a hectic time for him, when he would be lugging clothes, cartons, plywood on his rickety handcart. On Monday, he has nothing to do but sit on his cart and sip tea.

Sab thapp ho gaya hai [Everything has come to a standstill]. There is no work. Many of my co-workers have not even come. All are in the same boat,” said Mr. Shah.

The prolonged strike has taken a more severe toll on the people than the sealing of borders, which would be fully effective only on the polling day.

Satyanarayan Mittal, a spice trader from Birganj, whose average daily supply of spice to several areas in Nepal is up to 100 sacks, has not been able to dispatch even one.

“That’s how it’s been for the last 10 days, owing to the strike. I get chilly, coriander, fenugreek, fennel and cumin seeds from India. But my consignments have neither come nor gone. The chillies I got from south India are starting to go bad. The Indian labourers who work for me have not turned up. It would take at least five days after the elections for things to normalise,” he said.

In light of certain incidents of vandalism and arson in Birganj, goods are being transported under police escort.

“Birganj contributes nearly 70 per cent of the total customs duty and 40 per cent of revenue to Nepal. There are many job opportunities here. About 15-20 per cent of the staff in the establishments are Indian,” said Deepak Tibrewal, treasurer of the Birganj Chamber of Commerce.