There are around 80 lakh Nepali-origin residents in India, primarily in Sikkim, Darjeeling, Siliguri, Shillong, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh and Gorakhpur-Lucknow.
The Indian ambassador in Kathmandu is no longer the politically active third wheel suspected of plotting a coup.
It’s now all about trust, cooperation and mutual benefit.
India has a peculiar foreign policy issue to deal with - our neighbours seek attention without India playing the big brother. When we don't comply with the expectations, they immediately show us the other suitor lined up, in the form of boorish, new money, China. We are stretched this election season between relentless Pulwamas, and Bloody Easter Sundays, so the focus on an old partner - whose cooperation and participation keeps eastern Uttar Pradesh thrumming with activity – has been relatively low.
About 6 lakh Indians work in Nepal. With an annual remittance of approximately $3 billion, and a per capita annual remittance of ₹3.4 lakh, Bihar, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim, and the Himalayan states are the biggest beneficiaries. There are around 80 lakh Nepali-origin residents in India, primarily in Sikkim, Darjeeling, Siliguri, Shillong, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh and Gorakhpur-Lucknow.
Approximately 9 lakh Nepalese work in India, of which about 40,000 are with the famous Gorkha Regiment, and the rest in sectors like hospitality, domestic help and security, seasonal agriculture labour, and employees in mines. It’s interesting to note that while Indians cross to work in Nepal from the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, Nepalese move to Western Uttar Pradesh, and the metros.
After the euphoria of a Hindu Hriday Samrat being sworn in as the Prime Minister of India subsided in largely Hindu Nepal, India-Nepal ties hit their lowest point in 2015, during the promulgation of Nepal’s new Constitution. This was also the time of the India-backed Madhesi economic blockade. However, the people-to-people connect is very strong in the region, and Nepal watchers see that the Government of India’s laser focus on development and delivery is echoed in Kathmandu’s strong interest in economic prosperity.
In 2018, Prime Minister Modi attended the fourth Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) summit in Kathmandu. Prime Minister Oli visited New Delhi twice after taking charge as Nepal’s premier. The Communist Party of Nepal government enjoys nearly two-thirds majority at the Centre, majority governments in six out of seven provinces, and a lion’s share in local government posts. India voted in a strong, stable government, and is likely to do so again.
For the interest of the region, and its tightly intertwined people, both countries need to come together and work as a team. A strong, pro-development vote in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, which is now going to the polls, becomes essential.
Mutually Beneficial Development
The Narendra Modi administration and the Oli government have an open, mutually supportive development strategy. Indian investment in Nepal has been in traditional areas such as hydel, roads or other infrastructure projects, that provide employment to labour from both countries.
The Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and India Cooperation Initiative is based off this interdependence. Think tanks are now recommending a Nepal-Bengal-North-east economic corridor for leveraging economic activities. This is a desirable, sub-regional development imperative that serves India’s Act East Policy as well.
Remittances to Nepal are high, clocking 30 per cent of Nepalese Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Political stability has led Nepalese to believe that time is ripe to court Indian assistance in helping them realise their potential in the medium, small and micro enterprises (MSME) sector, services diversification, and expanding tourism footprint.
The region’s untapped agricultural potential will foster demand-driven diversification of crops, leading to relevant agro-industries. India already prefers quickly maturing projects with larger employment potential, like joint ventures in agroforestry in the MSME space.
Kathmandu hosts the International Center for Mountain Development, the world’s foremost multi-disciplinary institution. Uttarakhand and the IVRI in Izzatnagar, Uttar Pradesh, have some of India’s foremost institutions to partner Nepal on their sustainable development journey.
There is huge scope for developing and upgrading the healthcare sector in Nepal by collaborating with established Indian corporate players. This is certain to attract foreigners and Indians in the immediate neighbourhood of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Himachal, and Uttarakhand, states with whose support, the sub-Himalayan region can be adequately covered. Currently, poor Nepalese folk avail facilities in Gorakhpur, the nearest big border town, and its infamous BRD Hospital, soon to be superseded by a brand new AIIMS. Facilities in Nepal will ease the pain of patients significantly.
Quality school education is a potential growth area. Well-off Nepalese, like their counterparts in Bhutan, send their children to top boarding schools all over northern India. Developing quality education campuses or franchises of some of these schools would tremendously serve not just Nepalese, but also the underserved in Bhutan, and Indian border districts.
Tourism And Culture: Building The Ramayana Circuit
Tourism is Nepal’s largest industry in Nepal with a 7.5 per cent share of GDP. Official statistics suggest that 1.7 million western tourists visited Nepal last year. India has suggested expanding tourism infrastructure, especially the Buddhist circuits, which ties Nepal in with India’s holiest sites and predominant faiths.
Prime Minister Modi visited Nepal in May 2018, and inaugurated a direct bus service between Janakpur, the birthplace of Sita in Nepal, and Ayodhya, the birthplace of Shri Ram, as part of his dream “Ramayana Circuit” to promote religious tourism in Nepal and India. Once the countries chalk out pilgrim-focused plans and combine their spiritual riches, devotees and tourists across the subcontinent, can avail of packages like the outstanding pioneering work done by India's Ministries for Tourism, Culture, and Railways.
There are 21 weekly flights to Gorakhpur, that carry a mix of business and religious passengers to Nepal and Kushi Nagar respectively. More service in the sub-region will make destination travel for traders and Buddhist pilgrims easier. Yogi Adityanath also inaugurated the long-awaited Mahesra over bridge at Sonauli-Gorakhpur national highway (NH80), to connect Gorakhpur and other east UP districts to Nepal. The over bridge, the proposal for which was accepted at ₹14 crore in 2009, was completed only by the Yogi Adityanath government a decade later.
The ₹33,108-crore Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project (PMP) has been envisaged on the Mahakali River (known as Sharda in India). This holy river forms the international boundary between India and Nepal, dividing the Far Western Development Region of Nepal from Uttarakhand in India.
The main dam at Pancheshwar will be across the Mahakali, 2.5 km downstream of the Saryu-Mahakali confluence. The bi-national scheme is aimed at energy production (5,040 MW), irrigation (2,76,410 hectares out of which 2,59,390 are in India) and flood control downstream. The Modi government is also constructing embankments along the Rapti, Badganga and Khando rivers in Nepal, and helping Nepal with inland waterways. However, devastating floods in the region have made the Nepalese wary. India has agreed to share statistics on flood forecast and work more closely on flood management.
Internal Security During India’s Lok Sabha Elections
During the final round of the Lok Sabha elections on 19 May, Central agencies and the UP-security establishment are working closely with Nepal to ensure smooth polling, with special focus on the VIP constituencies of Varanasi and Gorakhpur.
All the UP districts along the Indo-Nepal border (Bahraich, Shrawasti, Balrampur, Siddharth Nagar and Maharajganj) have been under intense patrolling to thwart any Maoist incursions from the Nepalese border. Close to 1,05,000 police, paramilitary and provincial armed constabulary (PAC), are deployed by India. Yet nothing much would have been possible without the help, cooperation, and participation of the Nepal security establishment. India repays this with further joint patrolling when elections are held in Nepal.
The Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and Border Security Measures
The SSB, a Central government agency, guards the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bhutan borders. Their agreement with their Nepalese counterpart involves using ‘laser fencing’ tech as a pilot project along key points on the border, as well as maintain a strict vigil around the Sharda river, the preferred mode of moving suspicious goods and people. The SSB and their Nepalese counterparts have pledged to hold a special drive on the border areas to stem the brewing and sale of illicit liquor and take immediate action on sight of wanted criminals of the two countries.
The Indo-Nepal border at Panitanki in the Siliguri subdivision is preferred by international smugglers dealing in antique idols. Recently, efficient intelligence gathering, strong confidence-building measures among border residents on both sides, and experts-led awareness campaigns on preservation of heritage seem to be working.
Cooperation with the Nepalese security establishment is critical to keep India safe.
The Nepalese have been hoping that the Modi government's Neighbourhood First Policy will continue if he returns to power, and issues with demonetisation will be resolved quickly with the Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB). The Indian ambassador in Kathmandu is no longer the politically active third wheel suspected of plotting a coup. Their push for greater border policing, ID cards, high-tech monitoring systems, and gradual narrowing down of border entry points for travel, is in India's interests too.
Mahant Adityanath, the head of the Gorakhnath Peeth, is an invaluable asset in that the Nath sampradaya has a major spiritual presence and weight in Nepal. His intuitive understanding and knowledge of the region can help cement friendly relations with Nepal, when backed by the might of the Central government and the will of the voters.