Post COVID-19: India & Nepal
The relations between Nepal and India touched their lowest ebb in 2015, when Nepal was making its new constitution, and further in 2020, on the boundary issue in Nepal’s North-western region. The spread of COVID-19 in the two countries further created a hardening of relations between the two countries as the open border was closed for over one-and-half years, beginning in March 2020.
But in the post-COVID-19 period, the situation on the ground is slowly returning to normal and, that too, after Sher Bahadur Deuba became Prime Minister of Nepal in July 2021.
- The border is now re-opened and cross-border movement of people—apart from vehicles, that remained disrupted for so long—has resumed.
- Even cross-border marriages have become a normal phenomenon.
- Recognition of COVID-19 test reports of one country by concerned authorities of the other country further facilitated the cross-border movement of people and vehicles.
- Nepal for the first time started to export surplus electricity to India. Exports of hydropower to India has opened a new prospect of earning revenue from India, which could, to a certain extent, bridge the gap in the balance of trade with India.
- There has also been a substantial increase in Nepal’s exports to India.
- Estimates are that 6 to 8 million of the Nepalese, especially from the hill region of the country, get employment opportunities in India. Nepal receives a huge amount of remittance from these people.
- The Indian government has handed over the Janakpur-Jaynagar sector of the railway to the Government of Nepal. The Indian government had undertaken the construction of the 69-kilometre railway line between Jaynagar (India) and Janakpuri/Kurtha-Bardibas (Nepal) in 2014, of which the 34-kilometre Jaynagar-Janakpur/Kurtha section has already been completed and handed over to Nepal. Work on the remaining section of the railway line is in progress. The entire cost of the railway project, that amounts to INR. 8.8 billion, is being borne by the Indian government.
Can BIMSTEC be the thread?
Nepal has been making much progress in capitalising on the opportunities being offered in the multilateral forum of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and has been lauded for its contributions too.
Within this organisation, Nepal primarily leads the sector on People-to-People Connectivity, with sub-sections comprising of Culture, Tourism, and People-to-People Contact Forums. Nepal and India have been working in close quarters in this forum. This is despite the tumultuous journey that they had been on since the past few years, with undercurrents of negative Nepalese sentiments since the 2015 India-Nepal blockade. However, the interaction of the two countries within BIMSTEC has not been a very smooth sailing.
- A major disagreement in this platform was witnessed in 2018 when the Nepalese government had outrightly rejected participation of the Nepalese Army in the first ever military exercise of the BIMSTEC countries. Even though the then Chief Nepalese Army was scheduled to attend the closing ceremony of the six-day counterterrorism drill at Pune, India, strict instructions from the Prime Minister K. P Sharma Oli, cancelled any Nepalese participation. This drill was mainly organised by the Indian Army and arguments were ripe regarding India’s own vested interest in hosting such an event, in the garb of BIMSTEC joint effort.
- Furthermore, other critics had mentioned that this event was a venture to promote BIMSTEC as against the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), by India, that has not been able to move out of dormancy because of the alleged India-Pakistan rivalry, thereby creating implications for the region and motivating smaller powers like Nepal.
- At the same time, Nepal might have realised the repercussions of such a strategic drill given its close proximity with China, not willing to portray any military liaison with India that does not share a good rapport with the latter.
Need to come out of disagreement over some issues– The Way Forward
- Nepal must realise the geopolitical significance of the Bay of Bengal region and the benefits that can be harnessed with the support of India.
- For instance, through the BIMSTEC Energy Centre, India can provide big investment and support long gestation period for a country like Nepal, to actualise its hydropower potential.
- At the same time, possibilities of cross-border river transportation with the navigation of larger, motorised ships down to Patna (Bihar, India) on the banks of the Ganges, from the Gandaki (near Chitwan National Park) and Koshi rivers, south of the barrages, flowing into India, west of Biratnagar, may be refurbished.
- Even though these Nepalese rivers were declared as ‘unsuitable’ for motorised navigation, former PM Oli had initiated the process of survey, with his Indian counterpart in 2018, with prospects of establishing docks and ports, river customs points, immigration offices, and quarantine facilities. However, much progress has not been made on this front, providing an opportunity for research and development between the two countries, within the domain of BIMSTEC. This is how both the countries can utilise the multilateral setup to enhance bilateral negotiations with convalescent outcomes for the future.
Even though 2022 looks bright for this bilateral relationship, effort needs to be put in to wipe away the memories of disagreement. This can be done by focusing on sectors that are easier to access.
Can you answer the following questions?
- Can Nepal and India move beyond the hurdles of the past by focusing on new avenues of cooperation in BIMSTEC? Discuss.