Trade resumes in the border towns of Bihar as Nepal reopens checkpoints

Trade resumes in the border towns of Bihar as Nepal reopens checkpoints

Trade resumes in the border towns of Bihar as Nepal reopens checkpoints

Citizens and businesses alike welcomed the reopening of the Indo-Nepal border at the start of October, after being closed for 18 months due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Bettiah: Last December, Newlyweds Rahul Sah and Indu Kumari and their baraati (wedding guests) had to navigate the dusty and weary bylanes of Pipra Rubari village, Bettiah, on foot to cross the Indo-Nepal border before boarding a bus to the groom's hometown. Rajesh Sah, the groom's father, is a resident of Parwanipur village, Parsa district, Nepal and had thought nothing of forming a matrimonial alliance for his son with a girl from Pipra Rubari, West Champaran district, Bihar. His only oversight was that he had not anticipated Nepal to keep its border sealed.

Coincidentally, on the same day, another wedding party was similarly rueing their helplessness. Carrying gifts and wedding items, Sohan Rai from Muzaffarpur was gravely worried about reaching Birgunj in Nepal, barely 7 kilometres away from the Indian border. He, eventually, had to traverse the distance on foot using the bylanes instead of the thoroughfare. 

Known for their shared culture and language, the cross-border marriages among the Madheshi people (citizens of Nepal who dwell in the Terai area at the foothills of the Himalayas) and those living in the bordering villages of Bihar has been a prevalent practice for centuries. This has given rise to the 'roti-beti' (bread and bride) relationship between the two countries. Though there is no official data on the number of cross border marriages, Mahesh Agrawal, President of Seema Jagran Manch in Bihar, estimates around 2000 nuptials during every wedding season in the districts on either side of the border.

"Since time immemorial, we have looked upon those across the border as our own," said Anil Tiwari, a resident of the Nepali town of Birgunj, whose forefathers were Indian citizens.

Shuttered border halts trade, turns border towns quiet

But this relationship came to an abrupt halt last year in March 2020, when both countries sealed off their respective boundaries due to the upsurge in COVID-19 cases. While India reopened its border in October last year, the Nepali government reopened their border to India only two weeks ago. 

Located at about 230 km from the state capital Patna, Raxaul, a town in the East Champaran district of Bihar, has virtually come alive. The otherwise deserted integrated check post (IPC) and the Bharat-Nepal Maitri pul (bridge), the main artery connecting New Delhi with Kathmandu, have returned to their original state, with the central thoroughfare bustling with a stream of vehicles from both countries. The videos emerging from Raxaul showed thick crowds in the Bank Road market area and taxi stand with the continuous inflow of citizens from both countries outside their respective borders. AK Pankaj, DSP, Immigration Department, posted at Raxaul put the number of footfalls from either side of the border at approximately 8000. "The crowd has certainly swelled compared to what it was when the border was sealed," the DSP told 101Reporters

People dwelling in villages along the shared border heaved a sigh of relief after vehicular movement resumed through the Shankaracharya gate between Indian town Raxaul and Nepal's Birgunj on October 1, 2021. The reopening has breathed a fresh lease of life into the business fraternity that had otherwise been suffering. 

Dhiraj Sharma once owned a successful garment business in Raxaul, Bihar. Compared to Nepal, the Raxaul market provided a wide range of commodities at cheaper rates, bringing in a steady Nepali clientele. However, the coronavirus pandemic brought his business to an abrupt halt. When the nationwide lockdown ended, Kathmandu's adamant position on keeping its border closed despite New Delhi giving the all-clear for opening India's border in October 2020 shattered Sharma's hopes to revive his shop. Under immense stress owing to recurring financial losses, Sharma had no other option but to close down his commercial establishment at the Raxaul market.

A delayed reunion

Welcoming the move to open the border, Raj Kumar Gupta, president of the Indo-Nepal Chamber of Commerce (INCC), said opening the border has saved 'parivaar, byaahaar and vyapaar' (family, behaviour, and business) of the two countries. "It conveys more than what meets the eye. Believe it or not, our family, behaviour, and business were at stake. Owners of around 20 to 25 establishments were forced to close down their shops due to the border staying sealed; matrimonial alliances were also affected badly owing to the months-long closure of the border," Gupta told 101Reporters. The INCC has been at the forefront of the agitation pressing for a reopening for almost a year, since the Indian government opened its border with Nepal via Raxaul on October 22, 2020. "The move will strengthen the Indo Nepal relationship further," hoped Gupta.

However, Pradeep Yadav, an MP and senior Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) leader from Birgunj blamed the ruling Oli government for keeping the border sealed for 18 long months. "It was not worth calling 'border sealing'. People were crossing the border freely. Goods containers from India were regular here. However, only public transport was not allowed, which caused grave distress to the common people. This was completely the design of the Oli government to create a divide in the relationship between the two countries," Yadav told 101Reporters

Vijay Kumar Sarawagi, Mayor, Birgunj Maha Nagarpalika, echoed similar sentiments, "Yes, the much-awaited decision finally arrived, albeit late and with incomprehensive motives," he quipped. 

Mahesh Agrawal suspected political undertones were behind the inordinate delay in reopening the border. He said a three-layered relationship between India and Nepal existed between people to people, bureaucracy to bureaucracy and New Delhi to Kathmandu. "Yes, some forces have been growing, trying to debilitate the relationship between us," said Agrawal, not divulging more.

Symbiotic business partnerships

Over the years, the markets in the bordering areas have further boosted the 'people to people' relationship. Business people here have no qualms in accepting dependence on Nepal and its people for their business. "It is better late than never," said Jai Prakash, a bicycle shop owner in the Bank Road market area. 

"About 80 to 90 per cent of business in the bordering areas come from Nepali nationals," said Mahesh Agrawal, who also runs a store in Raxaul. 

Nepali citizens are ecstatic after the opening of the border. "The Indian market is always special for so many reasons. We have an assorted range of products here. Of course, grocery items are a favourite which saves us about 20 to 25 per cent money on basket size transactions," Lal Bahadur, a resident of Birgunj in Nepal, told 101Reporters.

The months of anticipation and trepidation broke into euphoria after official word confirmed the reopening of the border from the Nepal side. Crowds gathered near the Shankaracharya gate between Raxaul and Birgunj as officials and Nepali citizens greeted visitors with garlands on October 1, 2021. Cross-border traffic has been smooth since reopening without any operational hiccups as the Nepal authorities have made all provisions for thermal and antigen testing. "Nepal has opened its border, and visitors/tourists are required to fulfil formalities such as a negative RT-PCR report for COVID-19 among others," Khem Prasad Adhikari, in charge of the immigration department at Birgunj, told reporters there. 

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