As a team of ‘marchers’ reached Samalbung, an area under the Suryoday Municipality in Ilam district of eastern Nepal, some Indians in the team were taken aback after they saw the status of the location.
“Is this a municipal area? If this is the condition of an urban area, what does a village here look like?” they wondered, as the 60 individuals trekked their way to Shree Antu from Kakarvitta on the Indo-Nepal border near Siliguri.
The marchers from India were appalled to see rustic life in village-like areas without roads, electricity, drinking water facilities and other basic amenities they called ‘naragpalika’ (Municipality).
The three-day ‘march’ that kicked off on 20 April last was meant to further develop Indo-Nepal relationship through the development of tourism projects between the neighbouring country and Mirik in Darjeeling district.
Given the slow pace of development in several regions in Nepal, the new communist government led by KP Sharma Oli has now given special thrust on development, while the country has also adopted a provincial system of governance.
And at a time when the new government plans to give the ‘Look East’ tourism campaign a new lease of life, people living in areas that border India in Darjeeling district have high hopes, even as they demand facilities and infrastructure.
“People here have problems crossing the (Mechi) river during monsoons to go to Mirik and other parts of Darjeeling district for their daily needs. There is no road to bring in the essentials to our area, while we still rely on horses,” a Samalbung local said.
Local people there are also worried about some restrictions that are in place there, when it comes to accessing markets on the Indian side. “People want access to Indian markets like Naxalbari, Chenga, Lohagar and even Mirik. People of Shree Antu produce milk and supply it to Mirik as the market is better there,” another local said.
Meanwhile, as the municipality areas still lag far behind as compared to the town areas in the neighbouring country, people looked happy as they went about their daily life and utilizing their natural resources.
Besides agriculture, some people of Samalbung earn their livelihood through bee-keeping. The people belonging to the Gurung community, however, rear ‘puthki’, small bees that don’t’ sting, while the special quality honey they make is treated as medicine.
The honey is very expensive, in that a 200 ml bottle of it would cost Nepali Rs 5,000. “Eastern Nepal was neglected for the past many years, and no one thought about development in this region, where people belonging to the Limboo, Rai, Lepcha, Dhimal and other racial groups also live,” sources in Nepal said.
“The objective of the ‘Hill Walk’ was to take stock of the situation in the eastern region, which depends on neighboring Indian areas along the banks of the Mechi, and to prepare survey reports on the things that are in place and the things that aren’t. The areas in the East have long been known for their ‘unity in cultural diversity’ and crossborder social and economical relations in the same landscape up to Darjeeling and Sikkim. We need to keep those intact,” said Raj Basu, the convener of the Association of Conservation and Tourism (ACT), in India.
As the Nepal government is yet to finally implement its plans, two organizations- ACT and Green Generation (GG) from Nepal–have already started working on plans for the areas. One of the Indian participants of the ‘Hill Walk’ pointed out the plight of the people, who depend on Indian markets, during the monsoon season.
“As people cannot cross the river to go to Mirik or other parts of Darjeeling nearby, they have to climb up the Antu hill to Shanti Bazaar (four-and-a-half-hour walk) tp fetch essentials,” the participant said.
On the second day of the walk, the team left Salakpur around 8 am and reached Shree Antu around 6 pm. All along the way, the locals greeted them and helped them. “Though they do not know what hospitality management is, they know how to honour guests and help them,” Mr Basu said.
Traditionally, people of Salakpur, in search of a market for their oranges, depended on Lohagarh in the Indian part. Quality oranges from Nepal used to be exported from Lohagarh to other markets in India. However, locals said the Nepal government has imposed some restrictions on them recently.
“People want access to Indian markets for development of the rural economy. On the other hand, the people of Salakpur do not have basic amenities. There is no road and no electricity. Many people use mobile phones, but the network is very poor. There is no question of Internet connectivity, except at a few places,” a Salakpur local said.
Locals used mini generator and inverter to charge battery to use their cell phones keep contacts with others, who even live in other countries across the world. According to the GG president, Arjun Karki, the entire Salakpur region turns into a ‘golden valley’ for the oranges cultivation from September to December. “People know about it, but they cannot come here due to lack of proper road connectivity,” he lamented.