Little progress after Prime Minister Dahal’s India visit, say observersCall for a pragmatic approach to problem-solving and regular meetings.
Almost six months after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal's visit to India, the status of progress and follow-up to the agreements reached during the four-day official trip are dismal, said lawmakers and foreign policy experts.
During a roundtable discussion on Friday organised by the Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism (CESIF), Raj Kishor Yadav, the chairman of the parliamentary International Relations and Tourism Committee, said the visit was successful in terms of a policy departure.
“Had we agreed to export 10,000 MW of energy to India a decade ago and also developed the Arun III project in the initially planned time, it would have been a game changer,” Yadav said.
“But our mindset is hindering the country’s development. Now the mob is dictating our foreign policy discourse… But, yes, the visit of the prime minister to India was a departure in terms of energy cooperation and building trust between the two prime ministers who adhere to different ideologies.”
The prime minister’s official visit to India in May–June strengthened Nepal’s close ties with India on many fronts, including power trade, and cross-border infrastructure, the roundtable participants said.
Several meetings of bilateral mechanisms should take place in order to implement the agreements signed on the visit, they said.
Barsha Man Pun, former minister and senior CPN (Maoist Centre) leader, said that the visit was successful in building trust between the political leaderships of the two countries, and enhanced cooperation in the field of energy was a major departure.
“Our energy sector has fallen victim to ultra-nationalism. We are successfully trading energy with India… As long as our domestic market is unable to consume all the energy produced in the country, the only option is to export it,” said Pun.
With regard to the report of the Eminent Persons’ Group, which has been gathering dust for several years now, the participants were of the view that both sides should seek a pragmatic course.
Overall, the participants said there is a deficit of trust between Nepal and India, and that there has to be diversification and decentralisation of diplomacy.
Professor Lokraj Baral said there has been no substantive change in the structural part of Nepal-India ties. “We need to discuss and brainstorm what kind of relations we want to build,” he said.
Baral expressed his reservations over the idea of land swap in order to resolve the boundary dispute between Nepal and India as Prime Minister Dahal suggested during his India visit. He said it was unrealistic to expect India to give up any land in its ‘chicken neck’ Siliguri corridor.
“We need to do a lot to resolve the boundary dispute and there is confusion on both sides on how to develop mega projects like Pancheshwar. There is a lack of autonomy in decision-making on the Nepali side and the status of the implantation of the agreed projects is dismal. Within the limited scope, the visit was successful,” said Baral.
Despite signing the Mahakali Treaty 26 years ago, Nepal and India have yet to resolve the differences over the development of the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project.
Udaya Shumsher Rana of the Nepali Congress said Nepal and India should focus on economic issues and agendas. Resolving the boundary issue will take a long time, but we cannot leave the boundary issue untouched after the Parliament unanimously passed the new map.
“We changed the political and social system but we could not bring about changes on the economic front. That is why we need to focus on economic agendas with India. The pact to export 10,000 MW of energy to India and the agreement on power export to Bangladesh are welcome moves. At the same time, we have been unable to conduct flights in Pokhara and Bhairahawa airports and now we fear that they could turn into white elephants,” said Rana.
Rana also supports the idea of reviewing Nepal’s long-standing policy of non-alignment and says it should pursue multiple alignments in the changed global contexts.
“We should also rethink our position of maintaining equidistant relations between India and China. The foreign policy should be pragmatic and focus on economic agenda. Around 20 percent of Nepalis who are working and living in India are unable to open a bank account or to own a mobile phone. Why not ensure their basic rights as per the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship?” said Rana.
CPN-UML lawmaker Sunita Baral said there is a psychological aspect to Nepal’s relations with India. “On the day the prime minister was heading to India, the President authenticated the citizenship bill and that weakened our national psyche,” she said. “We need to examine the rationale and objectives of the 1950 treaty and the letter of exchange between Nepal and India signed for purchasing military weapons.”
She also highlighted India’s failure to uphold equal treatment as enshrined in the peace and friendship treaty. She demanded speedy resolution of the EPG report issue, and clarity on defence purchase.
“Why did the prime minister raise the issue of land swap [as a possible solution to the Kalapani dispute] and what is the latest on the stalled recruitment of Nepali youths in the Indian army?” she added.
Two former commerce secretaries, Chandra Ghimire and Purushottam Ojha, spoke on the future of bilateral trade, commerce, and transit, and offered some suggestions.
Just signing agreements is not enough, implementation is important, said Ojha, calling for sincere diplomatic initiatives to implement past accords.
Another former secretary Ghimire said Nepal’s trade deficit with India has been narrowing compared to that with China.
He said Nepal and India should sign a comprehensive bilateral trade and investment deal to bring more investment into the county.
“What do you export if you don’t have exportable items? So we need to increase Indian investment and the country’s dependency on Nepal so they will not be able to impose a blockade again, like they did in 2015-16,” said Ghimire.
Former ambassador Dinesh Bhattarai said Nepal and India should hold meetings of bilateral mechanisms regularly so that outstanding issues are resolved on time.
“When the Indian prime minister visited Nepal in 2014, we agreed to form a foreign secretary-level mechanism in order to resolve the outstanding boundary issues. But not once has it met,” said Bhattarai.
Geja Sharma, an expert on security and foreign policy issues, termed the prime minister’s India visit as average.
“A level of trust was built. It seemed that both sides decided to put aside contentious issues and discuss the less contentious ones.”
“But when it came to matters of national importance like the EPG report or getting air entry routes, they hardly figured during bilateral talks,” said Wagle.