Indian shows where there’s a wheel, there’s a way in Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : When Pritam Singh first came to Nepal from Jammu as an 18-year-old in 1957 – 10 years after India had become independent – Nepal, though never colonised by the British, was virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

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Though its rulers opened the Hindu kingdom to outsiders in the 1950s following a pro-democracy movement, highways and roads were still virtually non-existent and there was no public transport.

“I brought three trucks from India and it took us 15 days to reach Birgunj (the town on the India-Nepal border that is the major trade route),” says Singh, now 75.

“The Tribhuvan highway (that connects Nepal with India) was a death trap and internal roads were mostly dirt lanes. But I brought seasoned mountain drivers from India and we started the first public transport service in Nepal under the Nepal Public Motor Service company.”

In 1967, the Indian government provided aid to Nepal to build the 9 MW Trishuli hydropower plant and Singh’s NPMS transported all the material.

In his nearly six decades’ stay in Nepal, Singh has seen tumultuous changes, including the transformation of a Hindu kingdom into a secular republic.

He has also seen, to his sorrow, the Sikh community dwindle.

“In the beginning, there were about 10,000 Sikhs,” he says. Sikhs at one time dominated the transport industry and Nepal has seven gurdwaras built by them.

However, due to the 10-year Maoist insurgency and growing insecurity as well as general strikes, Sikh transporters began to return to their roots in India.

“Today, there are about 1,500 people,” Singh sighs. “Many have returned to Jammu, which, they feel, is safer than Nepal. Though the Maoist movement ended, now there are mushrooming armed groups in the Terai and extortion and strikes are rising.”

However, Singh has shown that when there is a will, there is a way to do business.

From transport, he has diversified into education. In 1992, he founded the Modern Indian School. Today, the high school has nearly 2,000 students.

Despite the ups and downs and the changes, two things remain the same.

“I have been attending all Independence Day programmes since 1957, when I first came to Nepal,” Singh says proudly standing to attention as the Indian ambassador to Nepal Rakesh Sood unfurls the Indian tricolour and the band begin to play the Indian national anthem.

“And my passport remains the same. Indian.”

Indians face various hurdles trying to do business in Nepal. They can’t own land or businesses directly and face problems trying to raise loans.

“I would have got greater facilities had I become a Nepali citizen,” the turbaned patriarch says beamingly. “But I would rather suffer losses and stay Indian.”

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at [email protected])