Costly connectionsNeither of the two—India and China—should ever be given the monopoly of trade in this country
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli completed his official week-long visits to India towards the end of February and to China towards the end of March this year. Such visits to the two giant neighbours are nothing new for the Nepali people. Almost all rulers of this country, whether they be kings or prime ministers, have made it their almost-religious ritual to do so. But this time around, the visits carried special meaning and the people had placed immense—maybe unrealistic—expectations on these visits to the two Asian giants between which our dear country is clamped. The significance of the visits lay in the fact that our nuclear powered southern neighbour had imposed a virtual blockade of Nepal but it was made to appear—without much success—that it was the work of an alliance of political parties that were dissatisfied with the constitution which was approved by over 90 percent of the Constituent Assembly members.
Connecting north and south
If Prime Minister Oli’s statements after the visits are anything to go by, then the country has a bright future. The credibility of our prime minister’s words will of course be tested by the people for his tall promises of doing away with loadshedding within a year and installing a gas pipeline in most of the citizens’ homes. But then tall promises, such as an overnight transformation of this country into Switzerland or Singapore, are the hallmarks of our prime ministers. In the course of Oli’s visits, there has been a lot of publicity about direct rail links to India and China. A British newspaper was quoted as having reported from Beijing that the rail link between Nepal and China, possibly through a tunnel under the Himalayas, had set the alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. Why should a direct rail link between Nepal and India not send similar signals to Beijing?
And what is the purpose of these rail links? It may be noted that Nepal has a railway system built by the British. But these rail networks do not directly link with the Indian rail systems. The one called NGR (Nepal Government Railway) linked Amlekhgunj in Nepal with Raxaul in India. But in Raxaul, the train went to the Nepal railway station and not to the Indian one, which was a bit far off. Similar was the case with the Janakpur-Jayanagar railway. The railways in Nepal came into existence during the Rana regime and yet the Ranas seemed to understand what a direct rail link would mean strategically to the then British India. But then rail links, like road links, are a path to economic and social development and even if the Ranas had done the right thing, today’s world calls for better communications and greater inter-dependence among nations.
Need for precaution
The joint statement recently issued by India and the European Union (EU) questioning Nepal’s constitution is just an indication of how big powers—whether they be countries like the United States, China or India, or bodies like the United Nations or the EU—are guided by military prowess and political influence rather than by a sense of justice for all. The EU ambassador to Nepal is reported to have told the press that the EU stood by its earlier statement welcoming Nepal’s constitution. If so, why did the EU resort to appeasement of India when it issued the joint statement?
The rail links to the north and the south seem to make many happy, but it is not known if the government has conducted a proper study for such links. Our two big neighbours are supposed to be trustworthy, but when it comes to their own interest, is there a guarantee that they will not create a mess in this country through such strategic rail links as one of them tried to do unsuccessfully through a road blockade some months ago? The rail links to the two countries—if they ever materialise given the big gap between the words of many leaders of this region and actual deeds—will cut our dependence on a single country for most of our economic needs.
Diversification of trade and economic activities is a basic need for a landlocked country like Nepal to remain free from being blackmailed by big and powerful countries, including our two neighbours. Neither of the two should ever be given the monopoly of trade in this country. Also, attempts should be made to diversify our trade and economic activities with countries other than the two neighbours. Nepali workers, who used to flock to India in search of work, are now going to different countries where pay and work facilities are supposed to be better and hence the dependence in this area has been lessened to some extent—even though the government does need to make efforts to reduce the export of workers and create jobs for them at home.
Direct rail links as a step towards cutting dependence on any one country have to be welcomed. But disinterested and impartial experts need to study all implications of such links, including their strategic aspects, before our leaders and rulers sign along the dotted line, as most tend to do without realising the wider repercussions and obligations.