New thinking

  • Narendra Modi could potentially accelerate the pace of regional integration in South Asia
- Rajju Malla Dhakal
New thinking

Aug 4, 2014-

Relations between India and Nepal have been close since ancient times. The open border between the two countries is testimony to this unique relationship. This has greatly facilitated the movement of people from either side of the territory and interactions at the people-to-people level. This shows, Nepal-India relations are much more than a sum of treaties and agreements.

But despite rich historical and culture ties, Nepal-India relations have always witnessed ups and downs—perhaps more downs than ups in the last few decades. It is true that many Indians and Nepalis carry very fond memories of their time spent in Nepal and India respectively. However, negative sentiments relating to the highhandedness of the Indian government are equally prevalent among Nepalis. Such sentiments are not unfounded. People still remember 1962 and other instances when the Indian government did not refrain from flexing its muscles and exposing Nepal’s vulnerabilities. Nepal’s dependency on India for crucial imports owing to its landlockedness and the 1,800 km open border shared with India is its ultimate vulnerability.

Modi’s move

Modi’s invitation to South Asian heads of government for his swearing-in ceremony was a breath of fresh air and a positive gesture that took all South Asians by surprise. His visit to Nepal and his commitment expressed on Twitter to strengthen relations has further made Nepalis more hopeful. This optimism is also evident on the other side of the border. People in both the countries hope his visit will lay a firm ground for mutual trust and respect. But gestures are good only if they are followed by action. The Nepali people hope that this indication of change in the focus and orientation of Indian South Asia policy will be institutionalised. And if that happens, it will indeed mark a new beginning in Nepal-India relations.

At a time when people of the both the countries are advocating for positive changes between the nations, the news about the Indian power proposal and some of its clauses hit the headlines.  What we Nepalis need to understand is that, each country would and should try to optimise its respective interests and there is nothing dodgy about it. Nepali leaders at the negotiating table should do enough homework and be clear on what Nepal wants.  More importantly, they should take a logical, not an emotional, stance when it comes to bilateral dealings.   

Important issues

Water resource has always been a prominent agenda in Nepal-India relations. However, some people in Nepal have always been skeptical about any potential hydropower agreement for fear of commercial exploitation by India. Nonetheless, the issue of water needs to be resolved and not just for the sake of developing hydropower. Flash floods and erratic river behaviour cause huge losses of lives and properties on both sides of the border during the monsoon. Likewise agriculture has invariably suffered for want of adequate irrigation. Although joint mechanisms (ministerial and technical) are in place, water-induced disasters every year indicate that they have been less than effective.

To address this problem, India can, first and foremost, demonstrate sensitivity towards the vulnerability to disasters experienced by Nepal on a daily basis. It can begin by laying a few basic ground rules in the neighbourhood such as: a relation based on mutual trust and respect, and a level-playing field for both parties in negotiation (unlike in the past).

For instance, India requires retesting of food products exported from Nepal in its Central

Food Technological Research Institute  laboratories located in Kolkata, Delhi or Lucknow. This process is not only time consuming but also troublesome.  A vast number of Nepali people crossing the border endure harassment meted out by the Indian border personnel every day. So the talk teams of India and Nepal should work to remove such irritants and convert the deep-seated anger towards India into potential goodwill. Currently, most negotiations tend to focus on larger issues but lose sight of matters of day to day importance.

Vision for the region

Going by Modi’s efforts to reach out to India’s neighbours, it has been widely speculated that he has a vision for South Asia which is in sync with his vision for India. People believe that he has already started taking decisive actions to that end. Perhaps his Nepal visit and the upcoming trip to Japan which was planned even before are part of that pursuit. Such gestures send a clear signal that Modi intends to give priority to India’s neighbourhood which  can surely help build a trust-based relationship among Saarc nations.

It must be noted that South Asia, unfortunately, is one of least economically integrated regions. Regional integration enthusiasts, however, believe that the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (Safta)--the single most important step designed to enable the South Asian countries to move towards regional economic integration, is flawed and limited in scope.

It will not be wrong to speculate that Modi’s rise to power is likely to accelerate the pace of South Asian regional integration. If this happens, all countries in the region will benefit equitably from regional economic cooperation and integration with its lesser developed members more  likely to enjoy special privileges. This may mean Nepal, a landlocked country, will have unhindered access to Indian roads and ports and airports for goods and services imported or exported to and from India and beyond. Furthermore, Nepal’s potential for over half a dozen medium and large hydroelectric projects, if materialised, can be of great value to the region if the surplus power can be exported to neighbouring countries through regional electrical grids. Modi would do well by declaring India’s willingness and support for a South Asian regional electricity grid that allows Nepali hydropower to flow through India to other South Asian countries. This has the potential to change the development trajectory in the entire region.

Malla-Dhakal has over 17 years of experience with Canadian, British, Australian and American aid agencies

 

Published: 05-08-2014 10:16

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