A road that makes a difference

In mid-October, right before Dashain, a dozer knocked down trees and stamped millet fingers to reach Musurbari, a village in Parbat district. Very few people resisted; most could barely keep their eyes off this juggernaut burying trees and breaking boulders. “In any case, why lie down in front of the dozer?” asked one of the residents. “You can open a road-side restaurant tomorrow and become malamal.” The road, unpaved and untested, even had a few dreaming of holiday resorts in the village. A few days later, the residents inaugurated the one-and-a-half-kilometre-long Ammata-Musurbari stretch by offloading a jeep full of sacks of rice.

It was now Handikharka’s turn. A village 20 minutes to the east of Musurbari, residents here were definitely excited about the prospect. The presence of the road meant that batare, everyone’s favourite alcohol, would be five rupees cheaper. It did not matter when bus services would actually start, the trek, at least, would be less arduous. So what if the road would wind up the hill, gololai ghero nabhannu re, batolai fero nabhannu re (don’t call a circle encircling, don’t call a road meandering). Besides, imagine a road finally connecting the village to the Sunauli-Pokhara highway 40 years after its completion!

The cost of construction, though—some Rs 600,000 for less than two kilometres!—was staggering. The villagers looked around at their 19 houses and felt that too few of them were rich enough to contribute more than a few thousand each. Neither could they wait for Saraunkhola VDC, under whose jurisdiction the village falls, to fund the extension. The project already had the VDC in heavy debt.

But even if it was only for the sake of pride, Handikharka had to ‘bring the road’ to its doorsteps. Two of the relatively well-off houses pledged a hundred thousand each. In return they demanded that the route bypass the lower settlements and run straight from Musurbari to the top of the village. Immediately, the lower settlements grumbled and proposed that the route instead run below their settlements. Separate aangan discussions ensued.

When the two camps tried to compromise and find a middle ground, it turned out to be a little too literal, and those living in the middle of the village resisted. Or rather, in the absence of those who used to live there, a woman tending to the land cried, “They have not left, only gone to graze. Don’t try to uproot them, and definitely not that mango tree.”

Besides, there were also legitimate concerns about landslides. Having a road run right through the centre of the village could mean that during monsoon, a landslide might take with it the settlements below and above. Plus, this was no temporary construction. The plan was ambitious: this road could one day link Sunauli to Mustang via Mirmi, Handikharka and Kusma. If and when that happened, the government could take the road under its wing and widen it to nine feet or more, befitting a national highway. Where would the village be then? Just look at the settlements along the Prithvi Highway today.

With objections coming in from everywhere, the village decided to hold a meeting on a field and determine the final route. A month had already passed since the completion of the Ammata-Musurbari stretch. And with each jeep offloading goods at Musurbari, Handikharka’s pride was shrinking.

“Musurbari spits on us,” said one of Handikharka’s residents. “We were the last ones in the area to be connected to the power grid, and now with this, we have become the backward of the backwards.”

“When the dozer does get here,” said another, “I’ll pull down my pants and show them the moon.”

The meeting, attended by most of the village, settled on a route and a proposal was duly signed. The road would now follow the old trail between the lower and upper pandheras, then wind down the terraces, taking with it the water canals and the field the meeting was held on, before coursing down towards the lower settlements. Each household would have to chip in at least Rs 5,000 for the cause. If the upper settlements wanted a separate road to their doorsteps, they would have to fund it out of their own pockets.

The village was able to collect around Rs 350,000, and subsequently, in early-January, a jeep unloaded four diesel drums at Musurbari. Soon after, though, Tarun Dal of Nepali Congress held a meeting and decided that the road extension should be halted until other villages in the VDC cleared the astounding debt incurred during the process. Now that the diesel drums were already here, Handikharka resisted and won. Shortly afterwards, a dozer arrived, and the dozer boy, a Chhetri from Nawalparasi, fell in love with both of the ‘nubile’ girls, a Chhetri and a Magar, in the village. The affairs lasted as long as the project—12 days.

Those 12 days cost the village Rs 529,470, around Rs 200,000 more than what was raised. Still, they held a small party at the end and celebrated the ‘arrival of the road’. A person’s destiny now, as one of the residents joked, was ‘to Setibeni ghat on a jeep’.

The road is sweet too. Except for one big boulder along the way, which the dozer could not break, the road is wide and smooth enough for even buffaloes to run wild. The villagers would, of course, like the dozer to come back with a breaker, but that would mean more money. And they have already borrowed as much as they can from local cooperatives.

Now, then, it’s wait-and-see. The expenditure sheet has already been submitted to the VDC office and the village is expecting reimbursement—in instalments, of course. Each fiscal year, the VDC allocates only a few hundred thousand rupees to reimburse the villages for their road extension efforts. At this pace, it will take 10 years for Handikharka to get all of its money back. This long wait has already driven chasms between villages, and between those who contributed in thousands and those who contributed in hundreds of thousands. This has also, surprisingly, made the villagers suspicious of outsiders who inquire about the road. What if the cunning outsider submits a report to a donor agency and stakes a claim on their money?

As for the road, the monsoon awaits.

Published: 06-04-2013, The Kathmandu Post