Janakpur to Jaynagar line was the only operating passenger railway in Nepal until 2014.
Currently, it is closed and the tracks are under construction. The width of its tracks is being increased from 2 ft 6 inch (popularly known as narrow gauge) to 5 ft 6 inch (wide gauge).
Although Janakpur to Jaynagar railway primarily transports people, it was not always so. The rail line was constructed in the 1930s during Rana period by Juddha Shamsher Rana “to facilitate the logging operations on his extensive forest holdings north of Janakpur”. Ranas lived in Kathmandu but claimed vast tracts of land in Tarai. “During the period when the Rana prime ministers held sway in Kathmandu, tarai lands were liberally distributed to family members and loyal retainers. The income from these lands accumulated into fortunes for these land-grant holders.” The history of land ownership helps one understand the current political, economic, and social conditions in Nepal. In particular, it helps to understand why native residents like Tharus and other tribal people (Janajatis) are landless while the Pahadis, especially those who were close to Ranas own vast tracts of land in Tarai without ever setting foot there.
Terai was once a densely forested region inhabited by tribal people. According to Gaige, “Forty percent of the entire tarai was forested in 1967”. This percentage was much higher in the 1930s before Ranas cleared forests for logging operations and revenue extraction. Tarai has since been cleared of its forests and have been turned into cultivated fields, except in Bardiya and Chitwan National Parks.
The Sen Kings of Palpa and Makawanpur “looked upon the dense, malarial tarai forests as a defense against invasion from India, and therefore, did not encourage settlement”. Tarai’s malarial forests may have seemed like a nuisance but according to Gaige, they were “as responsible for decimating Captain Kinloch’s expeditionary force in 1767 as were the long, curved kukris (knives) of the hill warriors”. Mosquitoes were just as effective as Gorkhali mercenaries in the war against the colonial British. After Nepal lost the war with the British and signed a peace treaty, Ranas no longer needed Tarai’s forests as a natural defense. They formulated policies to clear the forests, encourage settlement, and extract revenue which was their endgoal. The timing was also conducive. After the end of World War I, “India’s industrial economy was expanding rapidly, it was possible for these people [Ranas] to exploit their forest reserves with great profit”.
Janakpur railway was born out of Juddha Shamsher Rana’s greed to sell timber to the colonial British and profit from dense forests in Mahottari.
Janakpur to Jaynagar was not the first railway in Nepal. Chandra Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana ordered the construction of Nepal Government Railway from Raxaul to Amlekhgunj in 1920s, almost a decade before Juddha did in Janakpur. Chandra used the railway to transport timber from forests in Bara. The two Ranas, Juddha and Chandra, “had their forests logged by Indian timber contractors and hill-tribal laborers in order to supply the demand of Indian railroads for ties (sleepers) and that of Indian industry for construction materials”. Ranas (Chhetris) used Nepali tribal laborers (Janajatis) to clear forest of Tarai (Madhes) that aided in the development of Indian railroads while Nepal’s infrastructure languished. Almost 200 years since, Nepal’s reality seems to have changed little. The Bahuns and Chhetris (Ranas included) still exercise some form of hegemony over Janajatis and Madhesis. Several revolutions have been waged to address these historical injustices but the struggle is not yet over.
Juddha Shamsher Rana had twenty sons and twenty daughters. That is a remarkable feat in itself. However, his effort to construct the railway in Janakpur has more historical significance even if it was driven by his selfish desires. This railway has become a lifeline for thousands of poor Nepalis in the region who depend on it not only for transport but also for their livelihood. In 2015, BBC made a three-part documentary series called “India’s Frontier Railways”. Each series covers India’s trains crossing borders in either Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The documentary shows how families, cultures and history are connected across the border through railway lines. The documentary about Nepal is titled, “The Last Train in Nepal” and is highly recommended.
The documentary about Nepal’s trains shows a complex reality about Nepal’s only passenger railway. Although thousands of poor Nepalis depend on it and benefit immensely from it, the train receives very little funding from the government of Nepal. Several coaches/units of the train and engines lie abandoned along the route, rusting away. It may seem bizarre that one of the cheapest and most popular mode of local transport in Nepal has not been adequately maintained, let alone upgraded or expanded to other regions. Perhaps this railway has been neglected because the railway is in Tarai-Madhes and benefits Madhesis who have very little say about the issue since they are under-represented in the government and civil service.
While the forests of Tarai were cleared to expand railroads in India, Tarai is still devoid of railroads or adequate roads. Interestingly, when Indian Railways offered to upgrade Janakpur’s railroads, the government of Nepal jumped at the chance and used it to expand the service from Janakpur to Bardibas, a town along Mahendra highway. Late King Mahendra designed the routes for the East to West highway to deliberately bypass towns inhabited by Madhesis. As a result, several towns sprung up along the highway, inhabited by mostly hill migrants and Bardibas is one of them. The Nepal government has plans to expand this railway in both directions – East and West. Coincidentally, most of the proposed towns are along Mahendra highway that have considerably higher hill migrants. The proposed route is: Kakrabhitta, Ithari – Bardibas – Jogbani , Bardibas – Janakpur – Jainagar, Simra – Birgunj – Raxaul, Kohalpur – Nepalgunj – Nepaljujn up to Mahakali – Gaddachaucki.
With the construction of Janakpur-Jaynagar railways, the forests of Mahottari and Dhanusa were deforested rapidly and timber was transported across the border. As the forests depleted, the fortunes of Ranas soared and the citizens were impoverished further. There are hardly any forests left in Mahottari and Dhanusa but the remnants of the only passenger railway in Nepal is still a matter of pride for people in this region.
The history of Janakpur to Jaynagar railway may not be pretty but the construction of new wide gauge tracks and resumption of rail services is highly anticipated by people in this region. It may or may not spur significant economic development but it will soar the hopes of thousands of families who are eagerly waiting for the new trains.
- Gaige, Frederick H. Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal. Berkeley: U of California, 1975. Print.