BY BHIM BHURTEL
It should have been a new beginning in India-Nepal relations, more momentous than in 1996 when New Delhi tried to take its sense of responsibility to its immediate neighbors after Inder Kumar Gujral became foreign minister. India agreed to renew trade with Nepal and a transit treaty that was more favorable to Nepal than ever before (India later reneged).
In one diplomatic farce after another in the neighborhood after he became prime minister of India in May 2014, Narendra Modi expressed his disposition to resolve the outstanding issues between India and Nepal in his last visit to the Himalayan country on May 12, 2018. Agenda item No 12 of the joint statement issued by the two countries’ foreign ministries at the end of Modi’s visit categorically stated that all of the outstanding issues between the two countries would be fixed by the end of September 2018.
But it did not happen. India has not only repeated its habitual insolence toward its northern Himalayan neighbor but also takes it for granted. It is a bitter truth that the Indian prime minister’s words have not turned into action. Nepal has witnessed a long list of such instances since Modi’s last trip to Nepal.
First, Modi has intentionally delayed receiving the India-Nepal Panel Report of Eminent Personalities Group (EPG) since July 4, 2018. The EPG was formed under an agreement between the prime ministers of India and Nepal by having four eminent representatives from each country study all the unresolved issues between the two countries and to recommend mutually agreeable solutions, including a new treaty to replace the India-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950.
Second, India often makes nebulous promises to Nepal initially, and then backs off from them later on. Nepal is not only “India-locked” by land but also by air. India has provided only one international air passage to Nepal through the Simara route since the beginning of civil aviation. Nepal requested an additional three air passages during Modi’s first visit to Nepal in 2014, but India denied the request. After Modi’s pledge last May, Nepal reiterated its request for three air passages through Biratnagar, Janakpur and Mahendranagar. India agreed initially, but when the time came to ink the agreement, India U-turned and declined to provide the air routes. India’s denial limits Nepal’s freedom of the airways, which runs counter not only to its prime minister’s vow but also its obligations under international law.
Third, the India Trade Promotion Organization (ITPO) organized an International Trade Fair in New Delhi for November 14-28, 2018. ITPO sent an invitation to Nepal and informed it that it had designated Nepal as a focus country for the fair. The Nepalese Trade and Export Promotion Center (TEPC) selected 10 companies and sent ITPO a payment to book the stalls. But the participants from Nepal were unable to transport their goods to the fair until November 24 because Indian Customs did not grant permission for the shipment to enter at the Banbasa border point and also didn’t provide any convincing explanation for why permission was refused.
India imposes and sustains a permanent economic blockade of Nepal with the help of tariff and non-tariff barriers. Twenty percent of the cost of production in Nepal consists of freight costs, and India has deliberately sustained hurdles at ports, railways, roads, and customs offices at the borders to make Nepal’s exports and imports costlier. Subsequently, Nepalese goods become less competitive. India’s unfair treatment of Nepalese products is responsible for Nepal’s skyrocketing foreign trade deficit. Consequently, Nepal’s economy has been stagnating for a long time.
The bad road conditions on the Indian side of the border are the main hurdles making Nepalese goods less competitive. India has snubbed Nepal’s request to upgrade roads on the Indian side of the border. Cargo trucks sometimes need to wait seven to 14 days to enter Nepal, and as a result, transportation costs rise.
When trucks shipping agricultural goods from Nepal arrive at the border, they need to line up in a long queue for five to seven days to obtain approval from the quarantine authority to enter India because Indian quarantine posts are very far from the border, either in Patna or Kolkata. Nepal has repeatedly requested the establishment of quarantine posts within 5 kilometers of the border; however, India has refused Nepal’s request.
Amid New Delhi-manufactured circumstances, including the economic blockade of 2015, Nepal, feeling India’s cold shoulder, signed a trade and transit treaty with China as a measure of last resort in 2016 and its protocol on September 7, 2018. Indian media, strategic analysts and security establishments accused Nepal of tilting toward China.
Some claim that the use of Chinese seaports and maritime routes is not likely to be viable for Nepal for three distinct reasons. The first is that Chinese seaports that Nepal is entitled to use, such as Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, and Zhanjiang, are much further from Nepal than India’s Kolkata and Visakhapatnam.
Second, these routes need to pass through high-altitude terrain and thus will be considerably more expensive and time-consuming to access than India’s seaports.
Finally, Indian ports are more accessible in cultural terms. The people of Nepal and India have similar beliefs and customs and understand each other’s dialects.
Undeniably, the seaports China agreed to give Nepal access to are about 3,000 kilometers from the nearest China-Nepal border point. Conversely, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam seaports are 550 kilometers and 1,300 km, respectively, from the nearest India-Nepal border. It is also true that the geography of the Indian routes is easier to traverse.
Outsiders who are not acquainted with the facts on why Nepal looks toward China may think distance and culture matter. However, despite the distance and the cultural disparities, for Nepal, Chinese ports will be far more efficient and economical than India’s.
Culture and distance don’t matter; intentions and honesty do.
India has not been abiding by internationally recognized multilateral agreements on the right of access of landlocked countries and freedom of airways when it comes to Nepal. India also has not provided concessions as per regional SAFTA agreements and multilateral WTO agreements for less developed and landlocked countries.
Despite the distance and the cultural disparities, for Nepal, Chinese ports will be far more efficient and economical than India’s
More importantly, India disregards its bilateral trade and transit pacts with Nepal. In his book, How India Sees the World, Shyam Sharan writes, “In my view, a better approach would be to offer Nepal … the use of our roads and ports on the same terms as for Indian citizens and companies. The efforts should be to convenience Nepal [so] that they are ‘India open,’ not ‘India-locked.’”
Sharan acknowledges that India has been using Nepal’s disadvantage of being landlocked as an opportunity for bullying a weaker, smaller country, which runs counter to the UN Charter and the Panchaseel principles.
As India has not been adhering to treaties, Nepal has started to look toward China as an alternative.
Most importantly, Pacta Sunt Servanda matters in an international rule-based relationship, whether it is a bilateral, regional, or multilateral system. If one party does not adhere to the letter and spirit of a bilateral treaty, then that party will no longer be seen as a trustworthy actor. In retrospect, India’s behavior toward Nepal suggests that New Delhi would not be a trustworthy party in any binding agreement.
Irrespective of whether a contract is between powerful countries or between one powerful and one weak nation, the moral meaning of an agreement cannot be decided by one party. This is the primary basis of any international law or binding agreement. The spirit of international agreements, whether bilateral or a multilateral, is that the contracting parties are equally accountable and responsible. That is the ethical standard of rule-based relationships. However, India undermines this standard in the case of Nepal, and consequently, nothing has improved despite Modi’s time-bound pledge last May 12 to settle all withstanding issues between India and Nepal.
Therefore, despite the substantial geographical, cultural, and other challenges posed by Chinese ports and routes, Nepal hopes using them will be efficient and effective in terms of cost, time, and effort, as well as hassle-free and rules-based. If China honestly adheres to the rules of the agreements, then distance and cultural differences will not matter.
To reduce language difficulties in the future, the government of Nepal recently decided to introduce Chinese language classes in high schools so that every graduate will be able to communicate easily with the citizens of their country’s increasingly important neighbor.