Nepal and India officials to hold high-level meeting on August 17The meeting to discuss large India-funded projects in Nepal has been seen as first step towards resumption of dialogue between the two countries.
Following a nine-month-long hiatus in dialogue, officials from Nepal and India are preparing to take part in a meeting to discuss progress made in India-funded projects in Nepal, in Kathmandu on August 17.
The eighth meeting of the Nepal-India Oversight Mechanism has been seen as a first step towards easing a standoff between the two countries triggered by a boundary dispute, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kathmandu confirmed.
“We don’t have alternatives to talks,” said Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Gyawali. “We can’t hold our entire ties hostage to the differences over the boundary issue,” he told the Post.
The meeting of the mechanism, set up after then Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s state visit to India in September 2016, oversees the implementation of bilateral projects and takes necessary steps to complete them within the stipulated deadline.
While Shanker Das Bairagi, secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is to lead the Nepali delegation to the talks, Indian Ambassador to Nepal Vinay Mohan Kwatra will head the Indian team.
Though the meeting is mandated to review and assess progress made in large India-funded projects in Nepal, officials and diplomats told the Post that it should be seen as the resumption of dialogue between the two countries.
During the seventh meeting of the mechanism, the two sides reviewed the status of implementation of all ongoing bilateral projects between Nepal and India in the areas of cross-border rails, petroleum pipelines, roads, integrated check posts, bridges, energy, irrigation, inundation, agriculture, post-earthquake reconstruction, among others, a statement issued by the foreign ministry had said upon the conclusion of the meeting.
“For the time being, the boundary issues can be isolated. But sooner or later, we have to resolve them,” said Gyawali. “Differences over one issue should not overshadow our entire bilateral relations. We have to move on. We believe in constructive engagement, and the upcoming meeting is just one positive step towards that end.”
“We are confident that our partnership with India will move towards a positive direction,” added Gyawali.
The talks come as experts suggest that Nepal and India also pursue track-two diplomacy to end the protracted lack of dialogue between the two countries. Bilateral relations have reached a new low in recent history after India released a new political map in November last year incorporating the disputed Kalapani area in its territory, and later opened up a new trading route via Lipulekh Pass that Nepal claims as part of its own territory.
“Some lower-level meetings at the district or junior officer level have been going on despite the dispute, but such a high-level is being convened only after November last year,” a senior foreign ministry official told the Post.
The standoff between the two countries further escalated after the Oli administration released a new political map incorporating Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura—territories currently administered by India—and got it approved by Parliament.
India then said that it will sit for talks after both nations and societies overcome the Covid pandemic. But Nepal has been making repeated calls to sit for talks— at least four diplomatic notes have been sent to this effect since November.
“I must say the talks are a positive step towards breaking the standoff,” said former foreign minister and ambassador to India Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, who also led the Nepali side of the Eminent Persons Group on Nepal-India ties that was mandated to suggest ways to chart out a new course for bilateral ties.
“Both sides have not had any formal communication for a long time, and if this meeting is taking place, then it is good. Though the meeting will not take up issues such as the boundary dispute, it will certainly pave the way for more talks and dialogue. This is a positive step,” said Thapa.
There is another section of foreign affairs experts who look at the development cautiously.
“A weekly war of words between Indian and Nepali officials and subsequent issuance of clarifications does not bode well for bilateral ties,” said Nishchal Nath Pandey, director at the Centre for South Asian Studies, a Kathmandu-based think tank.
“This is happening at a time of the pandemic when we need crucial support. Multiple channels of communication must be explored by the government with focus on track-two diplomacy to break the ice,” said Pandey.