Janakpur is holy and historic, a supremely religious place for Hindus from all over the world who visit the city on festive occasions of Ram-Navami and Vivah-Panchami. The place is revered by one billion Hindus and figures prominently in the great epic Ramayana.
Now the real life, the way Janakpur actually is today.
Like many mid-sized urban centers, Janakpur is connected to Kathmandu through air. It is about half an hour flight over mountains, rolling hills, river deltas, and flat farmland to the southeast, which is one of the most scenic routes to fly anywhere. Airport runway has been built and rebuilt over many years to ensure safe landing but the airport terminal is a rundown structure, unchanged—even unpainted—since it was built in the early 1960s. Nonetheless, as per provincial standards, airport facilities are passable.
However, the appearance of the city—which comes into view after a couple of minutes’ drive from the airport terminal—is nothing less than shocking, not just for foreign visitors but also for those from other parts of the country.
Streets are a jumble of humanity and animals, full of mud, and in the dry season, an unbelievable amount of dirt. Even passing through the city center, this scene doesn’t change; actually, it worsens in the presence of open sewerage and its overpowering smell. Heaps of trash and cow-dung litter the streets and you can’t walk or ride through them without closing your mouth and nose. In fact, wherever you go in the city, the worst of urban decay is visible.
More to the point, since the city’s sprawl has been almost uncontrolled—meaning no planning and no zoning—corrugated shades and brick structures are stacked together, allowing no space for traffic to flow and, in the congested streets of the city, sewer smell permeates the air.
However, the most significant and spectacularly disturbing feature of Janakpur life is the amount of filth accumulated in front of shops, houses, and the city’s numerous places of worship. The sewer discharge builds up in the inner city year-after-year, some of which gets out of the city boundaries only during heavy rains. Most of it ends up in water reservoirs that dot the city. Reservoirs thus work as the storage points for city’s sewer system, becoming home to myriads of pathogens, and most disconcertingly, provide fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Closely linked to the drain/sewerage problem is the problem of drinking water. Because there isn’t a river source, city water supply comes entirely from pumping out underground water, but this water doesn’t reach more than half the city residents. This means that most city households have to fend for themselves; they install tube-wells and dig up wells. However, such water source is unhealthy, even dangerous, because of its contact with the accumulated sewer water just below the ground. The use of sewer-mixed and often arsenic ground water in food preparation and for drinking is common in the city but the public is hardly aware of its health risks.
The city’s reservoirs have been given sacred status and thousands of people use them daily—for bathing, washing, and even drinking. Because of the heavy sewer content, most people who make use of reservoir water know it is not clean but they habitually ignore it because of the religious connection of the reservoirs, which people believe give them a sort of immunity from sickness and disease.
Also, there is a cultural aspect to the treatment of human waste in Janakpur, an aspect also evident throughout the Tarai plains. Open defecation is considered normal and more purifying than using indoor facility. Probably this belief got built up over the generations when indoor plumbing was rare and unaffordable for most people. This is not so now but the practice continues.
It is not surprising then that while in many Hill districts open defecation rates have sharply declined over many years and some have even declared themselves defecation-free zones, the Tarai districts remain stuck with the old tradition. So far, less than 20 percent have been persuaded to change this habit.
It is undeniable that Janakpur and many other places in the Tarai suffer from a public health menace—unmanaged public waste and contaminated drinking water. Experts agree that except for a few new diseases such as cancer and heart ailment, most of the prevailing diseases in the country can be sourced to poor waste management and unclean water supply. This means that public health problems cannot be addressed without progress in public waste management and improvement in drinking water quality—everywhere, but most specifically in city areas where population is more concentrated.
Public health, of course, is social responsibility, and therefore, the government is obliged to provide adequate funding to meet this need, including for waste management, sanitation, and drinking water, starting with the urban areas.
It doesn’t look like the resources being made available from the national budget have been adequate—for Janakpur and nationwide. Nonetheless, for Janakpur alone, the annual budgetary grant amounts to between Rs 6-7 million; another one third can be raised from local sources, resulting in annual development budget of 10 million rupees in total. This entire development budget need not be spent on sanitation and water supply alone. Spending just half the sum will help improve living conditions in the city in an unimaginable way, over a relatively short time span.
The sad truth, however, is that this optimistic vision is unlikely to materialize, even in a marginal way. Such pessimism is based on the past record of use of budget funding of which, reportedly, almost the entire amount gets stolen. Its evidence is that almost nothing has been built on the ground to provide lasting benefit to the city’s residents in terms of drinking water and sanitation. Other important sectors show little progress as well.
Reportedly, the practice has been that at least half the budget gets lifted by central authorities—between bureaucrats, politicians and contractors—and only half actually makes its way to the districts. Again, of the budget that comes to the district, two-thirds gets shared between high district level officials and local politicians. Only about 10 percent of original allocation may go into actual projects—sanitation, drinking water, and the rest—which too is spent on capital projects of no lasting value. In most cases, what are left of the budget funding at the end of the spending cycle are just the signed receipts, proving that money has been spent but not that actual work has been done.
It is not one or two officials or politicians who are involved in such scams. In fact, the whole system seems to have been structured to benefit government officials and politicians, with no room left for public accountability.
It is, then, not because there is no money that we can’t clean up Janakpur and provide decent facilities for rest of the country. Rather, it is our insidious culture that poses the biggest threat to public welfare