Sunday, April 27, 2014

Border benefits

The open border must be a major plank of economic and diplomatic relations between India and Nepal

The open border between India and Nepal has been the vantage point of the two countries' trust-based relationship. But a closer look at this border regime shows a lack of impetus in transforming this unique arrangement for the enhancement of trade relations between the two countries, thus leading to a failure of the border regions to tap into the potential of trade activities.

Gains for both

Many places in the Madhubani district in India's north Bihar share boundaries with Nepal. These places offer immense opportunities to maximise trade and civil cooperation. Sadly, Indian authorities have taken a lacklustre approach in helping build roads and rail infrastructure across the border in Nepal.

Kathmandu, too, has surprisingly failed to show interest. Nepal has no rail network beyond a symbolic and outdated small stretch between Jaynagar in Madhubani and Janakpur in Dhanusha district in Nepal. Telecom and postal cooperation, which has great potential to foster civic ties, is also missing.

These shortcomings indicate a flawed approach to border talks between the two countries. There seems to be a clear and sharp disdain for tapping economic opportunities and while delving on this issue, the geographical spread has to go further—to other parts of north Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttarakhand.

The federal structure of India restricts the states' authority and action when it comes to international matters. So it is imperative that New Delhi and Kathmandu be serious about these issues, which are currently being handled half-heartedly without any vision. It is time for India and Nepal to go beyond formal barriers and translate rhetoric into action.

Nepal has emerged as a more confident nation amidst the democratic transition. Nepalis today no longer see the monarchy as an option. This is a welcome development in the country, where, until recently, political authority was seen as inseparable from the royalty. Historic political upturns have tested the country in many ways. But amidst many setbacks, Nepal has emerged as a forward-looking modern nation. These developments have close bearing on Nepal's relations with India.

Potential gains

Yet, in recent years most high-level Nepali delegations visiting Delhi have been ignoring the potential of trade relations between the two countries. It is surprising when even a prime minister-led delegation prioritises rudimentary concerns over core issues.

Take as an example the fact that India is the world's largest milk producer. It reached this position through early adaptation of technology and impressive cooperative movements, not through keeping high numbers of cattle alone. Nepal is a milk deficit country but its plains are conducive for a white revolution. So it should seek India's overall expertise and try to create a success story like that of Amul in Gujarat.

The power sector is another area where the passive stances of both countries are harming their economic interests. There is an immense potential for cooperation—especially in hydroelectric production and transmission. Sadly, India's industrial chambers—the Confederation of Indian Industries, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India—have not been able to move beyond tokenism in furthering multi-sphere trade cooperation with their counterpart in Nepal—the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Most delegations have wasted much time and energy signing Memorandums of Understanding without observing the feasibility of new projects. Treaties between these two countries need immediate revision. Trade or diplomatic negotiations in 2014 cannot be handled by the policies of bygone eras. New Delhi has a lot to do on this regard and it must do so for the mutual interest of both countries.

Border problems

As India faces the constant threat of terror attacks, safeguarding its open border with Nepal is high on its to-do-list. Time and again, Nepal has closely cooperated with Indian security agencies in cracking down on terror outfits, most recently the Indian Mujahideen network. But there are many problems along the border that must be addressed by both sides.

Illegal trade is rampant as official vigilance is not up to the mark. This administrative failure could make Nepal a parking lot for terror activities, as India is the most targeted country by both international and homegrown terror outfits in the whole of South Asia. India cannot afford to overlook this aspect, so it has to guard its borders with greater sensitivity. Nepal also has a shared interest here. The border, therefore, should be made a major plank of India-Nepal diplomatic negotiations.

Next month, a new government will be formed in India. The new prime minister should start a new beginning by visiting Nepal before flying to distant locations. India must show this courtesy to its closest ally, which has not been given its due in the past—especially if we recall the Indian PMs' lack of interest in visiting Kathmandu. That unusual shortcoming has shadowed even the good intentions shown.

To make trade and diplomacy work fairly, India and Nepal should move beyond tokenism and enter a new phase of cooperation. Nepal should not preclude itself of benefiting from India's economic rise and India should not miss the opportunity to further cooperation with a politically stable Nepal.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on April29,2014)

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