The blockade along the Bharat-Nepal border disrupted the freight movement between the two countries. The Madhesi groups are seeking more effective ways to expand their protest against what they call an unjust Constitution.
There have been anti-Bharat feelings running high in Nepal stoked by media and political leaders. Bharat has categorically made it clear that it is not happy with the way the Constitution has been endorsed. But the riot and political unrest are the internal problems of Nepal. Bharat has nothing to do with the prevailing conditions in the Tarai Areas. The diplomatic confrontation between Bharat and Nepal over its new Constitution has turned into a blame-game over the pile-up of trucks carrying goods into Nepal at three critical checkpoints along the border. According to a local customs association, about 1,500 trucks laden with fuel, civil supplies and essential foods have been held up, as Madhesi groups protesting against what they call an unjust Constitution have refused to let truck traffic move at all the major checkpoints, including Birgunj, Biratnagar and Nepalgunj. The government denies there was any move to delay goods flowing into Nepal. “Bharat has conveyed in no uncertain terms that there is no blockade from the Bharateeya side,” a senior official told. “But we are unable to control what is happening on the Nepali side of the border, and the prevailing situation is leading to obstructions in trucks going through,” he added.
The new political configuration in Nepal indicates anti-Bharat rhetoric led by the three parties’ dominance. Prachanda and Oli are tilted to China and allowing anti-Bharat sentiments. Nepali Ambassador to Bharat Deep Kumar Upadhyay had urged all the stakeholders to cultivate positive approach and work on resolving the differences between Nepal and Bharat as Bharat imposed ‘blockade’ is making the ordinary lives difficult in the country. The weaving of Nepal that Southern neighbour has imposed unofficial blockade on Nepal by showing dissatisfaction over Nepal’s constitution, is a blatant propaganda.
Unrest in Nepal is not in interest of Bharat
It goes without saying that an unstable and turbulent Nepal is not in Bharat’s interest. Therefore, Bharat has been trying its best to facilitate and bring the government and discontented groups to the table and resolve the outstanding issues amicably. Being a guarantor to the peace process, Bharat has a right and a moral duty to involve itself in the process of change taking shape in Nepal. Long running instability and violation of human rights in Madhes is bound to attract international attention and interference. With the rising domestic violence in its backyard, Bharat may also witness a domino effect in its bordering regions. Given its major investments and stakes in Nepal, Bharat can ill afford to let the situation deteriorate especially when it has a long and open border with Nepal.
Bharat’s Concerns and Security Threats
Given the fact that Bharat shares an open border with Nepal, the consequences of violence and instability in the Terai would have consequences for Bharat’s security and may threaten the security of Bharateeya businessmen and traders who are engaged in business in Nepal. Moreover, cross border ethnic linkages and familial ties make Bharat an interested party. While Nepali political leaders blame Bharat and Bharateeya ‘interference’ and try to arouse anti-Bharateeya sentiments, the same political leaders use New Delhi to further their political ambitions and do not hesitate to take New Delhi’s help to entrench themselves in power.
PM Modi’s Initiatives
Very few bilateral ties have seen the kind of personal investment of time, energy and resources by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the one with Nepal. The PM made one of his first bilateral visits to Bharat’s neighbourhood in August last year to Nepal — within a week of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visiting Kathmandu. He returned to Kathmandu in November last year — to attend the SAARC summit — and had a detailed bilateral engagement with the entire spectrum of Nepal’s political leadership. When the earthquake shook Nepal in April this year and the Himalayan country’s PM could not be contacted — he was overseas — Modi did not stand on ceremony and called up Nepal’s President to offer him unconditional assistance for rescue and relief. Within hours, the Bharateeya disaster management machinery was set in motion to assist Nepal, followed by a joint briefing sometimes with as many as four secretary-rank officials to give an update on the rescue ops. Modi also supported the Nepal in making a well-accepted constitution for Nepal. But the good wishes of Modi were dashed by the Nepalese leaders.
Economic Ties and its Importance with Bharat
With 1800km in open shared borders and 27 trading points, Bharat is by far Nepal’s largest trading partner, accounting for roughly two-thirds of Nepal's merchandise trade. But landlocked Nepal must rely on its coastal neighbours to access export gateways to regional and global markets. The port of Kolkata in Bharat serves as Nepal’s access to the sea and is a major transit point for Nepal’s third-country trade. Nonetheless, Nepal’s trade and investment outcomes remain alarmingly poor. Exports grew only 60 per cent since 2007 while imports increased four-fold. Over three million Nepali migrants abroad – nearly 40 per cent of who work in Bharat – finance this trade imbalance through remittances. Foreign Direct Investment hasn’t fared any better. In 2014 Nepal received only $70 million in FDI – half of what Rwanda received that same year. Nepal can’t afford to receive goods from China. Moreover, Nepal-China trade is limited to military equipment and goods.
Recently Bharat granted two major benefits to Nepal in the last one year. Bharat recently announced a line of credit for Nepal to help pursue its long-cherished vision of building a ‘Fast Track’ highway aimed at reducing travel time and transportation costs between the capital, Kathmandu, and the border crossing at Birgunj, which handles over half of Nepal's exports and nearly a third of its imports. If built, heavy trucks could save at least $40 per one-way trip in fuel and maintenance costs and long hours in elaborate detours. Linking into the East-West Highway, the Fast Track would effectively move Kathmandu closer to the rest of Nepal, Bharat and the global economy. Earlier this year Nepal and Bharat also signed an agreement to lay a strategic oil pipeline between Raxaul in Bharat and Amlekhgunj in Nepal – the first such regional infrastructure of its kind. Nepal imports about $1.1 billion worth of petroleum products every year, all from Bharat. The pipeline will significantly reduce the use of road tankers, saving Nepal over $6.5 million a year.
It will also help save the environment along the trunk route, lower labour costs, relieve congestion at the border crossing, and reduce pilferage and adulteration. In the first phase, the 41km pipeline is expected to be completed in about 30 months. In later phases, the pipeline will be extended all the way to Kathmandu, according to plans.
There are reports flowing from Kathmandu and other major towns across the country of people lining up to fill up on fuel and stock up supplies, as fears spread of an economic blockade like the one imposed by Bharat for 13 months in 1989 as relations between then PM Rajiv Gandhi and then King Birendra had led to the lapse of a transit trade agreement between them. “While the fears may be similar, there is a vast difference between 1989 and 2015,” noted Nepal-expert and Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, SD Muni.
This impasse will not be good for bilateral ties. The Nepalese leaders are least concerned. Bharat can’t afford a situation like Sri Lanka. Intense ethnic war has taken the life of Bharateeya prime minister. Nepal is strategically crucial for Modi’s Himalayan security which has been underlined by two of his visits, therefore, Bharat can’t afford unrest and anti-Bharat sentiments intentionally generated by Nepalese media and politicians.
Dr Satish Kumar (The writer is Head of the Centre for International Relations, Central University of Jharkhand, Ranchi)