Bibbi Abruzzini, JANAKPUR (Xinhua): Since Nepal’s only functioning railway was shut down nine months ago, locals here have lost their means of livelihood and are now demanding that the government provide them with alternative job opportunities.
The railway, which stretched from Janakpur in the Nepal-Indo border to Jainagar in the Indian state of Bihar, was the only functional train network in Nepal.
Data from the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport showed that every day more than 3,000 passengers used to benefit from the service with their livelihood almost entirely dependent on it.
“Government officials should come and assess how we live now. Businesses are losing and thousands of people have lost their only source of income since the railway was shut down,” Samir Khan, a shop owner from Janakpur, told Xinhua on Monday.
Managed by the Nepal Railways Corporation, the operation of the 59 km narrow gauge railway has been stopped to allow a major upgrade plan which intends to widen the track with a broad gauge of 1.6 meters.
Officials from the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works told Xinhua on Wednesday that the objective is to complete the project within three years.
In the meanwhile, however, local communities and businessmen across the country are being hit hard as even Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, has no railway connections at all.
What once used to be a dynamic business hub in Nepal’s impoverished Terai belt now looks virtually deserted with children using the empty locomotive wagons as playground.
“I used to discharge cargo for a living earning 6,000 Nepali Rupees(about 60 U.S. dollars) a month that was main source of income,” 20-year-old laborer Arun Kash said.
The government is planning to extend the railway network, aside from upgrading it from the narrow gauge to broad gauge under a grant from India. This would improve connectivity between Nepal and India.
The old tracks are slowly being replaced but the rainy season caused construction works to be temporarily halted, rising fears among locals that it will take longer to complete the upgrade. “Road links between Nepal and India are generally in a bad condition. We had no options but to upgrade our railway system. Yet the government is aware of the fact that locals are suffering, ” Ananta Atarya, director general of the Department of Railways under the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works, said.
Atarya said that the government is currently facing problems in land acquisition and relocation of utilities such as electric lines.
Ordinary people have relocated on some land originally assigned to the railway project thus creating further tensions between locals and the authorities.
“There are five cross-border points connecting Nepal to India and our plan is to improve all of them in the near future but coordination between different government authorities is slowing us down,” Atarya said.
Even though locals have faith in the future and in the benefits that a modern railway system will bring to Nepal, their present looks dim and many are ready to take to the streets to express their discontent. “Since the railway was shut down we have been left on our own. If things do not change we will start protesting until our basic needs are met,”Babalu Khan said.
Nepal’s railway system is still at an embryonic stage and the land-locked country is caught in between a social and a development dilemma. If on the one hand it must modernize to improve mobility and boost import-export with its neighbors, on the other hand angry locals feel they are not receiving enough support from the government.
Atarya said that the government is planning to provide more facilities to locals and to develop an East-West railway system and is seeking help from both China and India. “We are looking forward to collaborating with both China and India to develop the railway system in our country and we particularly hope that Beijing will extend its helping hand towards Nepal,” he said.
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