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Outside Pashupatinath
Outside Pashupatinath

Why Indo-Nepal friendship is a win-win for both

|By Narendra Kaushik|

New Delhi: Walking through the long winding corridor of ziggurat-like red-brick Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu makes you feel like you have come to a school or a bus stop built unpretentiously.

The sole international airport of Nepal having an international and a domestic terminus is quite non-descript and apparently a bad advertisement for the country.

The minimal security at the airport reminds you of 1999 when an Indian Airlines aircraft IC 814 was hijacked from here and taken to Kandahar airport (Afghanistan).

No wonder, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched down at the airport for his two days visit on August 3 with his SPG (Special Protection Group) security in tow.   

Wooden craft

Wooden craft

Though the airport has a pre-paid taxi counter it is quite likely that the taxi you hire from here will be archaic and decrepit.

The run down taxi, however, will be a perfect complement to roads and buildings in the wooden paradise (the city draws its name from wooden buildings).

Most of them are bedraggled, potholed and shorn of bitumen. Even the road and dusty parking lot outside Pashupatinath are crying for repair. In fact the roads in entire Himalayan kingdom are in a very bad condition.

This is the reason why Kathmandu wants New Delhi to help it construct Mid Hill Highway and postal roads in Terai region. The 1776 kilometre long Mid Hill Highway will run from East to West in the Trapezoidal country and connect 24 districts (around 1/3rd of the total).

Similarly, the postal roads adding to about 1,500 kilometre, are supposed to be laid in multi-phases. India and Nepal have been working on them for several years.

Modi’s announcement of a $ 1 billion (Rs 10,000 crore) line of credit for development purposes during his visit over and above the earlier assistance provided including funds for Mid Hill Highway and postal roads and $ 250 million line of credit through the Exim Bank of India could help Kathmandu build better infrastructure.

Apart from the roads, Nepal could use the Indian concessional credit in expanding its scanty rail connectivity. The landlocked country currently has only a narrow gauge railway line connecting its Janakpur to Jainagar (India).

There is no rail connectivity anywhere else including Kathmandu. When it comes to transporting goods to and from New Delhi, its only Inland Container Depot (ICD) connected with India is at Birgunj.

Nepal PM Sushil Koirala wants India to link ICDs in Bhairahawa (Siddharthnagar), Nepalgunj (Banke District in Terai region) and Biratnagar, Nepal’s second largest metropolis.

IRCON, a sister company of Indian Railway, is in the process of connecting Jogbani (Araria District of Bihar) with Biratnagar and Jainagar (Madhubani District of Bihar) with Bijalpura and Bardibas in Southern Nepal.

The poor road and railway connectivity in the Himalayan kingdom puts added pressure on airports. The country has close to four dozen domestic airports out of which less than three dozen are in operation. Only 14 airports have paved runways.

The rest have planes zooming off from grass and clay surfaces. Better air connectivity is one of the reasons why China has come closer to Nepal and overtaken India in investing in the country.

New Delhi obviously wishes to strengthen connectivity and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent visit to Kathmandu to participate in Joint Commission meeting was an effort in this direction.

Swaraj has emphasized on improving connectivity between the two nations. The Joint Commission meeting has taken place after 23 years.

Improved connectivity could give a fillip to the number of Indian and foreign tourists who flock to Nepal every year.

Pashupatinath temple

Pashupatinath temple

Apart from Pashupatinath temple, the reigning deity of the Himalayan kingdom, there are a number of other tourist and archaeological sites in and around Kathmandu which attract backpackers.

These include Buddhist temple or Boudhanath Stupa in Northeast of Kathmandu, Singha Darbar, the glistening white building which houses Nepalese Government and pagoda-style temples housing various Hindu deities like Hanuman and Vishnu at Darbar Square and Buddhist sites at Patan, since rechristened Lalitpur.

The valley surrounded by various snow-capped Himalayan peaks makes for a magnificent sight from the sky.

pagora-style temple

Pagora style temple

Since Nepal and India share common heritage when it comes to Buddhist and Hindu icons the increase in tourist footfalls in and around Kathmandu would automatically translate into more tourism revenue for states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and West Bengal which border the Himalayan nation.

But more than the connectivity and the tourism, Nepal needs energy. Despite around 55 rivers including Kosi, Gandaki and Karnali coursing through the length and breadth of the country and its huge potential for hydro power (estimated potential 83,000 MW – presently Nepal generates less than 1000 MW), Nepal imports electricity from India. 40 per cent of the country in fact still lives in dark ages and has no access to electricity.

The power trading agreement between New Delhi and Kathmandu will not only guarantee India as the market for surplus power but also address energy needs of both the countries once their grids get locked.

For now, Power Trade Agreement and Power Development Agreement of 900 MW Arun-III project has not been finalized. But Nepal has promised to wrap it up in a month and a fortnight. The two countries have exchanged letters for terms of reference of the Pancheshwar development authority which is responsible for constructing 6,400 MW Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project in Mahakali River. The move is expected to expedite construction of the dam.

The project covered under integrated Mahakali Treaty signed between India and Nepal entails construction of equal sizes of underground power houses i.e. of 3240 MW on each side of Mahakali River in the two countries and promises regulated supply of water for irrigation for agricultural land in both countries. 

Besides investing in hydropower, connectivity and services, New Delhi would like to engage with Kathmandu on security and trade to wean away the valley from Chinese influence.

The bilateral trade between India and Nepal increased from USD 3.63 billion in 2012-13 to USD 4.11 billion in 2013-14 but it is skewed in India’s favour.

Nepal has been pressing India to scrap CENVAT (Central Value Added Tax) it levies on Nepalese businessmen exporting to India.

a monk praying outside Buddha temple

At the same time, Sushil Koirala has sought India’s political and moral support for drafting a constitution.

Currently second Constituent Assembly is drafting a constitution which might transform the country from a monarchy to republic, from Hindu Kingdom to secularism and from a unitary to a federal state.

The first Constituent Assembly failed to do the job and folded in May 2012.

Narendra Modi has already made it clear that New Delhi will not interfere in the ongoing political process and only provide guidance when it is asked for.

His gift of a DVD set to Koirala on the making of Indian Constitution should be seen in this context.

Over the years, jihadi elements have started operating into India via Nepal and New Delhi wants Kathmandu to clamp on them.

The step would also benefit the Himalayan kingdom as it has witnessed increased sectarian violence in recent years.

About Team PB7