The sun rises in Nepal’s Far West

Better connectivity and a sense of identity under a new federal structure brings hope to Far-Western Province

The new bridge over the Mahakali River currently under construction will join Far West Nepal with the North Indian status of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and New Delhi.

The far-west has been neglected by the rest of Nepal for centuries, but it is brimming with potential for socio-economic transformation.

The reason it has always been seen as a periphery by Kathmandu has been its remoteness. It is a five hour drive to New Delhi from Dhangadi, but it takes at least 12 hours to get to Kathmandu.

The devolution of political power under Nepal’s federal Constitution, and new connectivity are rapidly changing the face of the Far-Western Province and opened up possibilities for the province to not just catch up with the rest of the country, but even overtake it.

The region is filled with natural and human resources. Federalism has enabled local municipalities and provincial government of these nine district to use their own resources for self-determined development priorities.

A new bridge over the Mahakali River is under construction and will soon replace the old single lane Tanakpur Barrage as the economic lifeline for the Far-Western Province by joining it with the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and New Delhi. There is a new dry port under construction.

The bridge will not just help transform far-west Nepal, but the rest of the country as well when it is finished in two years. Perhaps then, this region cannot be referred to as ‘backward’ or ‘under-developed’ anymore.

“In terms of connectivity, this bridge will be a game-changer,” journalist Surendra Phuyal tells the Saglo Samajtv magazine. He points to how the inauguration of the Karnali Bridge also similarly joined the far-west to the rest of the Nepal 27 years ago. Before that, people from far-western Nepal had to travel through India to go to other parts of Nepal.

While the Karnali Bridge immediately brought the far-west closer to the rest of Nepal, the new Mahakali Bridge will bring the increasingly affluent industrial and agricultural regions of north India closer to Nepal, allowing the easier flow of people and trade.

This means Nepal will now be much more accessible to the 200 million people in India who live within a 5 hour driving distance from Dhangadi or Mahendranagar. Many of them are young Indians looking for new unspoilt destinations to go on holidays or pilgrimage. Many are tired of the overcrowded hill stations of Nanital, Ranikhet, Mussourie in India.

Better connectivity can therefore have an immediate impact on tourism if the facilities and infrastructure on the Nepal side can be improved. This in turn, will bring tourism income to the rural far-west reducing the push-factor driving its people to migrate out.

Many of the destinations in the far-west and adjacent Karnali are pristine wilderness areas: Khaptad and Rara National Parks, Badimalika, Api Saipal Conservation Area. These are all scenic unspoilt wilderness areas with their own religious significance that can be a draw for Indian as well as domestic Nepali tourists.

In addition, there are the Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve and the Bardia and Banke National Park in Karnali Province. Says nature guide Kum Thakur at Sukla Phanta: “This area is famous the world over for the Barasingheswamp deer, tiger, rhino and rich birdlife. Despite Sukla Phanta’s smaller size compared to other national parks in Nepal, the reserve’s mix of wetland, jungle and vast grasslands give it a higher density of wildlife.”

North India’s most prosperous areas near Delhi is within a few hours driving distance. Can benefit from tourism from these areas. Increasingly affluent. They are looking for new unspoint destinations. “Chalo Sudur Paschim Pradesh”.

Bed Upreti, an airline captain with Air India, who has set up the Mahendranagar Museum says:  “I see huge untapped potential for tourism if the far-west is promoted adequately as a destination. For this, we have to reduce the distance by improving connectivity to the destinations like Khaptad. Whenever I fly over Far-Western Nepal I feel like it is a gold mine for tourism.”

Meanwhile, federalism has brought new hope that the Far-Western Province can benefit from devolution, and not have to depend on faraway Kathmandu for everything.

“We used to have to go to Kathmandu for the movement, now with the province, we can solve our own problems,” says Yagyaraj Chaudhari, a Tharu social activist.

Chaudhari says there is residual tension in Far-Western Province between the indigenous Tharu community of the plains and the mountain settlers. It goes back to the history of trans-location of villagers from the mountain districts to the Tarai during the reign of King Mahendra in the 1960s. This has been exacerbated by instance of violence like the massacre of policemen in Tikapur six years ago, and the continued imprisonment of Tharu leader and MP, Resham Chaudhari.

“There is simmering anger among the Tharu because of this, and it is also fed by their under-representation in proportion to the population in government jobs,” says Chaudhari. “Inclusion will address the discrimination, but also help uplift living standards of the Tharu people. Road are important, but even more important is affordable health care and education for our people.”

With Province 2, the Far-West is possibly the only other province with a distinct identity. For the people of this far-flung region that identity stems from the common sense of neglect by the rest of the country.

“What unites the people of Far-Western Province both in the mountains and the plains is that there has been no development here,” says businessman and media entrepreneur Gopal Hamal. “It is our economic weakness that united us, it fostered a sense of solidarity.”

He says the priority is to address the injustice that the Tharu have suffered and to address their grievances. He says, “Earlier, it was the settlers from the mountains who mistreated the Tharu, and took their land. Now, despite the Constitution, it is the state that is the oppressor. We have to solve this before it takes a explosive turn.”

Although this is not the kind of ethnic identity that the Madhesi community of Province 2 feel, the people of the Far-West feel they share the feeling of being abandoned by the central government for so long.

Says Hemraj Panta, who was chief of Kailali Campus and a rector at Sudur Paschim University: “Culturally, the Khas identity and the Tharu identity in the plains give us a distinctness, but perhaps the Far-West has more of a cohesiveness compared to other provinces.”

Most interviewees in Mahendranagar and Dhangadi agree that domestic tourism and visitors from India can be a catalyst for economic growth for the Far-Western Province. Just as the neighbouring Indian state of Uttarakhand has the Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage tourism, the province can also promote its shrines and pilgrimage spots that are common to Hindus in Nepal and India.

One attraction could be sight-seeing flights from Dhangadi airport for Indian tourists to see Mansarovar and Mt Kailash from the air, or even Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Mt Everest.

“If one local government promotes one destination, one district identifies one attraction, and the province promotes itself as Sundar Sudur Paschim, we can lift the rural economy,” says Hamal. “The youth will then have jobs and this will reverse outmigration.”

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