BY PRABASI NEPALI
During his recent official visit to India, Nepal’s prime minister K.P. Sharma Oli has – so it seems on paper – managed to discard his anti-India image and to achieve major points of cooperation in various fields – again, at least on paper. However, these bilateral official visits have the tendency to announce high-flown projects, while ignoring any achievement at the lower levels – achievements for the common man (but more of this later). Thus, it can be said that Oli can claim to have achieved quite a lot. But the taste of the pudding is in the eating. What is undoubtedly true is that bureaucrats on both sides were very active long before the visit took place so that the Nepalese and Indian delegations could sign the various agreements and claim victory. Indian premier Narendra Modi’s terrible image in Nepal after imposing the atrocious blockade just after the horrendous Great Gorkha earthquake, can also be said to have lessened, if not completely been erased in the face of Indian largesse. This will, of course, depend on whether the Indian bureaucrats who will make the agreements effective also do so in a spirit of mutual gain and satisfaction, and not as is their usual habit, manipulate them to India’s advantage.
Nepal and India have thus agreed to enter into partnership in three key areas: inland waterways, cross-border rail linkages, and agriculture. It has been reported that the two sides reached an agreement on these subjects during delegation-level talks held in New Delhi – although the fact of the matter is that the contents of the various ‘deals’ must have been thrashed out long before the visit. This must have been readily apparent for the hard-headed Indian public, but for the gullible Nepalese it was indeed an eyewash. To repeat: let us wait and see how the various deals actually work out. In the first instance, Oli came back to Kathmandu and claimed great success, none the least “historical”. Not to dampen the exuberance, it must be pointed out that India does not have particular know-how or experience in any of the fields — inland waterways, railways and agriculture – where it is a complete mess and India itself is in need of help and advice.
It is reported that Modi and Oli agreed to develop waterways to enable ‘cost-effective’ and ‘efficient’ movement of cargo within the framework of trade and transit arrangements, and
provide additional ‘access to the sea’ [!]for Nepal. This would indeed be great if it was in any way feasible and practical from any angle. Oli noted the enormous impact additional connectivity would have on growth of business and the economy of Nepal. Modi in turn said the initiative would result in land-locked Nepal becoming sea-linked. The enormity of such an undertaking can only bemuse serious and genuine friends of Nepal in India, and the people of Nepal are again taken for suckers. It does seem that the grand strategy for such a project is beyond the basic knowledge of both Modi and Oli – both are deceiving themselves and each other and the Nepalese people on a grand scale (the Indians are not that gullible!).
Merely the geography and economics of the scheme (double meaning intended) makes it a damp squib. Nepalese rivers (all flowing into India) are just not navigable for sizable boats, at least for commercial traffic. And during the Monsoon this would be an impossible task. Trying to make them so – against all odds — would be an enormous financial burden, even for India, and, therefore, for all intents and purposes a pipe dream. This castle in the air was probably meant as a sop to gullible politicians and educated Nepalese who are preoccupied with the land-locked nature of Nepal’s topography.
The two prime ministers also agreed to construct an electrified rail line with India’s financial support, connecting Raxaul in India to Kathmandu! The objective was to expand connectivity between the two countries, to enhance people-to-people contact and promote economic growth and development. This is all very well and good, but we have not been informed about the time frame. Is it a five- or ten-year plan or even – god forbid – a 100-year plan or vision? The fact is that little progress has been made in the cross-border rail link projects in the pipe line. There is definitely the underlying suspicion that this project has been proposed to rival that of the Chinese enterprise of linking the Tibetan-Nepalese border with the nation’s capital (and of course beyond to Shigatse and Lhasa), Pokhara and even Lumbini.
There is also the lingering suspicion that with the southern scheme, the northern link has become redundant, as it is better suited to make Nepal land- and sea-linked. In this connection, there is also the thought that why our brilliant politicians and grand planners in all these years have not considered a road and rail link of south-eastern Nepal with Bangladesh in the framework of SAARC connectivity? This would after all reduce India’s obligation vis-à-vis Nepal and as a side effect make it less land-locked, besides building a land-bridge to Bangladesh.
On agriculture, the third area of intensive (projected) cooperation, the two countries agreed to give “fresh impetus” to bilateral cooperation in this sector and to launch a “New Partnership in Agriculture.” The very use of the phrase ‘fresh impetus’ by itself illustrates the
cooperation till date has room for improvement. In order to mask such deficiencies, India is to launch a ‘collaborate’ undertaking of massive proportions in various sub-sectors of agriculture writ large running the whole spectrum from research and development to education, training and scholarships. What could aspiring young Nepalese possibly learn in India, considering that it is itself ‘a least developed country’ in the field of agriculture? The ‘New Partnership’ will also focus on strengthening the ‘supply and value chain’ (including tea, ginger cardamom ?), climate resilience, seed technology research, soil health, infrastructure of plant protection laboratories, research of indigenous genetic resources, animal husbandry, veterinary research, agro-forestry, bio-pesticides, bio-fertilisers, cooperative farming and exchanges between the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and the Nepal Agricultural Research Council. The whole gargantuan catalogue sounds very impressive as it was very much intended to. The hitch is in the implementation – the when and how are key. Again the fact is that in all the above areas, India is not very much developed itself, does not have sufficient resources and will likely be over-taxed.
At the same time it must be mentioned that Oli and his delegation avoided all other points of dispute and disagreement between the two countries. These were among others the various bilateral river projects, disputed territories, inundation in the Tarai-Madhes areas during the Monsoon, and the exchange of high-denomination Indian currency notes. These controversial topics were conveniently swept under the carpet, although they are of great interest and importance to the Nepalese people. Perhaps, Oli did not want to irritate Modi by taking them up? In any case, Oli has a duty and responsibility to give answer to the people, who have given him a very strong mandate to act resolutely and in the common man’s interest.
As is their wont the extreme parties of the right (the Bharatiya Janata Party/BJP in India) and the left (the United Marxists-Leninists/UML and their brothers-in-arms the Maoist Centre in Nepal) have taken a great leap forward in hoodwinking the unsuspecting Nepalese people. All three parties have authoritarian tendencies and have chosen to present projects that are top-bottom. What we really need are projects that are bottom-top, where the people are very active at the grass-roots, very much ‘own’ them and then participate at all levels. Only then is sustainable development — social, economic and political – viable.
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org