Gelje Sherpa became the youngest member of the 10-man team that summited K2 in the winter for the first time, on January 16, 2021 | Gelje Sherpa/The Record
Recently, I met some very bright young Nepali youth at a conference organised by the UNESCAP. They were well educated, self-driven, intelligent, well-travelled, and with experience of social work in remote areas of Nepal. We chatted on myriad subjects: climate change, urbanisation, management of natural resources, new start-ups taking advantage of the digital connect, embracing AI, creating a circular economy and even family. I live in Shillong, Meghalaya, and it turns out some of them have relatives in Shillong and visit them periodically. They also mentioned relatives in the Gurkha Regiment. I was impressed by their knowledge of international organisations, their ability to connect with people and their network building skills. Over dinner in a foreign land, we bonded on our common tastes for food. We were reminded of our shared links in religion, folklore, and the deep familial ties on both sides.
However, when the discussion veered towards recent development cooperation between India and Nepal, I found our conversation was stumbling. There was more awareness on contentious issues than the advances being made in areas such as connectivity and power. Back home in Shillong, I reached out to a few friends in the large Nepali community. Some are in academia now. Most were clueless on recent advances made, except for the occasional news report about issues such as the border dispute and the blockade. For me it was a striking example of the changing times, an insight into the aspirations of the youth and their quest for a new future. As one from Northeast India, for me it really was also a telling tale of “so near, yet so far.”
Recent Transformative Changes
The Nepal-India relationship is much more than “Roti Beti and Rozi Roti”: It intrinsically is one of shared aspirations encompassed in the youth of the country: this fact needs to be seen against the backdrop of several factors: ecological, economic, geopolitical, and socio-political.
At the level of ecology, topographically tied together in Himalayas and the plains, interlaced by many shared rivers, India and Nepal share common ecological issues: these are further heightened with increasing climate change. With rising global temperatures, freshwater, flood management, ground water conservation between Nepal and India is going to become crucial for water security, prosperity and the region. As an extension, management of other natural resources too will need collaboration.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “HIT” formula between India and Nepal: Highways, I-Ways and Trans-ways. Since then, a lot has also been achieved. In the last nine years, Nepal’s first Integrated Check Posts (ICP) was established in Birganj, the first Cross-Border petroleum pipeline of the region was built between India and Nepal, the first broad-gauge rail line has been established and new transmission lines have been constructed across the border. The recent power trade agreement between the two countries is a game changer. Through financial connectivity and cross border digital payments, thousands of students, lakhs of tourists and pilgrims as well as patients coming to India for medical treatment will benefit. The economic connectivity is being strengthened by the construction of three more ICPs.
In parallel, India’s north-eastern states are also being connected amongst each other and also with neighbouring Bangladesh and Bhutan. All north-eastern states are now connected by air and rail. The Haldibari rail link is operational between North Bengal and Bangladesh. Roadways and several land ports with Bangladesh to the south are being upgraded. Nepal can take advantage of this bilateral connectivity with Northeast India and regional connectivity southwards with Bangladesh which will further connect to the Bay of Bengal: a theatre full of promise.
Nepal’s role in the Bay of Bengal and its role in regional configurations such as BBIN or BIMSTEC will become more and more critical, with India’s rapid rise in the Global South. Nepal’s position as a member of the Global South and as a Himalayan country in the overall Indo-Pacific will be a telling testimony of her recognition and her increasing impact on global power play in the maritime space with her assertion as a maritime nation despite being landlocked.
The transformative narrative of Nepal, from a nation “sandwiched” between two big powers to a nation which will play an important role in the maritime geography of the Indo-Pacific needs further recognition within the global strategic community.
India and Nepal share the only open border that exists in South Asia. This is a template for setting an example of a shared dream of a vibrant South Asia and Bay of Bengal community. Such an aspirational narrative needs more resonance in the study circles of universities and think-tanks in both countries.
Need to go beyond governments
Yet, beyond the confines of foreign office desks and the rarefied group of Nepal experts, very little is discussed on these developments in the strategic community, universities and media. They say perceptions are bigger than reality. They often create reality. Perceptions are often created by the narratives that occupy the public mind space. Working towards a constructive future needs constructive narratives. While governments do set the tone and can be matchmakers, nurturing and empowering people and institutions on the ground is going to be paramount. This can only be done in a shared space encompassing votaries of the idea of shared prosperity spanning politics, policymaking, industry, academia, and civil society: a third space beyond but including the first two of government and big business. Civil society, think tanks and academia can play an important part by highlighting success stories that come out of the respective governments and creating narratives that increase the confidence of businesses to invest in each other. Addressing the youth throughout this process is particularly important.
It is time to have dedicated programmes in universities to connect the youth on these shared aspirations: sports and cultural meets, border festivals, university exchange programs can be platforms to build bonds of people and institutions that create psychological connectivity transcending “the politics of day”. As winds of change swirl around the globe, it is perhaps time that Nepal and India also decide to set some new narratives that recognise this fact.
In any deep relationship such as one like the Nepal India relationship, there will always be the burden of misgivings from the past. There will always be critics of any good idea. Any relationship needs nurturing, appreciation of each other’s strengths and the will to overcome challenges together in the spirit that the value of the relationship is far greater than the weight of the challenges. This recognition that the connection itself is above anything else can catapult it to the next level which is beyond regimes and subnational politics. Soon, the seventh meeting of the joint commission, the highest-level bilateral mechanism between the two countries, is being convened to look after and address the entire gamut of the bilateral relations and to remove bottlenecks. The advances being made will need much more churning in the schools, colleges, and boardrooms of both countries. Will we be doing this? Will we be doing enough of this? How can we do more of this? These questions hold some genuine answers to further strengthen India-Nepal ties in changing times.
(Exclusive to NatStrat)