The fifth meeting of Nepal-India Joint Commission concluded on August 21 expressing happiness with the overall aspects of Nepal-India relations. Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar headed their respective delegations. The meeting discussed a host of bilateral issues related to treaties and agreements on trade, transit and rail services, inundation along the border, report of Eminent Persons Group on Nepal-India Relations, and border mapping, among others. Roshan S Nepal of The Himalayan Times caught up with Minister Gyawali to talk about the outcome of the meeting. Excerpts:
How’s the present status of Nepal-India relations?
Nepal-India relations have reached new heights. High-level visits over the past years have laid a strong foundation of trust. Time-bound implementation of past agreements has begun. There are some promising developments such as Motihari-Amlekhgunj Petroleum Pipeline, Janakpur-Jaynagar Railway, Integrated Check Posts in Birgunj and Biratnagar, Arun III Hydropower Project and post-earthquake reconstruction. We have also identified new areas of cooperation such as inland waterways, cross-border railways, and agriculture cooperation. Things are moving ahead encouragingly on these fronts too. There are some projects that have been stuck. However, we have been able to create a favourable environment to move ahead.
How did the Nepal-India Joint Commission meeting go?
Nepal-India Joint Commission is the apex mechanism between the two countries. The commission’s mandate is extensive. It was set up in 1987, but it was not very active. It gained momentum after 2014, and we are now conducting meetings regularly.
The last meeting was held after Indian Prime Minister NarendraModi was re-elected for his second term with a robust mandate and Nepal had attained political stability under the leadership of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who also had a strong mandate. In the past 15 months, the two prime ministers met at least four times. The two leaders reviewed our relations and prepared a blueprint for future course of action. In this backdrop, this meeting was important, and there were expectations. We reviewed bilateral relations and developed a roadmap for the future. Therefore, the meet was fruitful. Besides the agenda, this meeting contributed to further strengthening trust between the two countries.
There are some irritants related to border mapping, inundation, extradition treaty, and report of the Eminent Persons Group on Nepal-India Relations that is yet to be received by the two prime ministers? Any outcome on these fronts?
We discussed these four areas frankly and in great detail at the meeting. Nepal-India open border is a special aspect of bilateral relations. There’s a lot that is positive in terms of boosting people-to-people contact.
However, there are also challenges. The work of maintaining or reconstructing border pillars began in 2014, but much is still left to be done. Moreover, mapping in Susta and Kalapani has not yet been done. In 1989, we had decided to determine Nepal-India border on the basis of fixed-boundary principle. This means we do not determine the border on the basis of existing occupation or holding, but on the basis of maps prepared 150 to 200 years ago. This has resulted in issues of cross-holding in some places. The Joint Working Group on Border Management is working to maintain or reconstruct pillars in places where border determination has been completed. It is also working to resolve issues related to cross-holding and pending issues such as Susta and Kalapani. We have asked the group to expedite work.
Floods are a big problem as hundreds of people lose their lives and property every year on both sides. This has been an irritant resulting in bitterness and misunderstanding. For a long-lasting solution, the two prime ministers have discussed the matter seriously. Last year, a joint technical team made two field visits — before and after the monsoon to vulnerable places — the Khando River in the east to the Rapti River in the west. The team has submitted its report, according to which the natural flow of rivers has been obstructed by various structures in various places. It has also recommended some solutions. So the joint commission has decided to implement the recommendations of the report and regularly monitor and follow up on the implementation.
With regard to extradition treaty, Nepal and India had initialled a Treaty on Extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance at the home secretary-level in 2005. However, contexts have now changed. Nepal promulgated a new constitution. In line with it, Nepal has adopted new laws related to extradition and mutual legal assistance. So treaties should match our constitution and laws. Also, at the SAARC and BIMSTEC-levels, we have various frameworks related to extradition and mutual legal assistance. We conveyed the same to the Indian side. There’s no further decision on the matter.
The Eminent Persons Group was set up after the two prime ministers felt the need to review our relations as per the requirements of the 21st century. What is a happy coincidence is that both prime ministers, who set up the EPG, are in their second terms with robust mandate. Second, the EPG report was prepared unanimously. Therefore, I am hopeful the report will be received and implemented. The EPG secretariat has been directed to take ahead the process of submitting the report to the two governments.
Did visiting Indian Minister Jaishankar seek a clear Nepali position on Kashmir during his recent Nepal visit?
No discussion on Kashmir took place. The issue cannot be on the agenda of bilateral talks. Immediately after the Indian government’s decision on Kashmir, the Indian ambassador to Nepal informed us about the decision. I have, on behalf of the government, made public Nepal’s position. Nepal makes independent judgment on such issues. So I feel the Indian side has understood Nepal’s position. We are closely watching developments in Kashmir. We have two concerns. More than 90,000 Nepali citizens are living and working in Kashmir. It is obvious that we should be concerned about their well-being should any problem arise in the region. We are in close contact with the Indian government and we are happy that Nepalis there are not facing any problem.
Second, we are in favour of peace and stability in the neighbourhood and the region. So we expect that peace and stability in the region will not be affected by any development.
There are reports Pakistan has also requested Nepal to speak on Kashmir as SAARC chair. Is Nepal going to oblige?
It is natural for any country to seek another country’s support for its position. But we need to form our opinion on the basis of the issue and its merit. Nepal has already made its position clear. We want to focus on our domestic matters and not get involved in others’ issues in which we are not related directly. We have confidence in the leadership of the countries concerned that they will tackle issues wisely.
What are the chances of the 19th SAARC Summit as it has been postponed indefinitely?
Nepal strongly favours multilateralism and regionalism. Problems facing mankind today such as climate change, terrorism, poverty, extremism and cross-border crime, cannot be resolved with the initiative of one country. Therefore, strong multilateralism with the UN at the centre and regional cooperation among countries facing common problems are necessary. Moreover, South Asia is the least integrated region, in terms of both economic and physical and digital connectivity. We trade less than five percent within the region, which is depressing. Therefore, we believe regional instruments should be strengthened for economic and social development.
We have been conveying to member states that differences can be narrowed down through dialogue. Some recent developments definitely have posed challenges. But we believe these developments are temporary, and we can make SAARC active.
In BIMSTEC, the incumbent chair organises the summit and hands over the chairmanship. However, in SAARC, the summit is organised by the incoming chair. So that’s tricky.
Is it also because, lately, the focus has shifted towards BIMSTEC?
These two mechanisms are not competitors, but complementary. SAARC is more about South Asia, while BIMSTEC connects us to the east. BIMSTEC is also important because the ASEAN is moving ahead as an important economic development hub. So we do not believe we should focus on one at the expense of the other. I hope everybody will accept this fact sooner or later.
What are the major challenges you’ve faced in the past 15 months of your tenure as foreign minister?
We are presently at an important turning point. Nepal has attained long-awaited political stability, political issues have been resolved, and our single focus has been socio-economic transformation and prosperity. We are lucky that our region too is booming. On the one side, there’s the world’s second largest economy, China, and on the other, we have the world’s fifth or sixth largest economy, India. If we are able to link ourselves with their economic development, Nepal can make a giant leap.
After such a huge political transformation, global attraction towards Nepal has increased drastically. Nepal is no more a back-bencher. Nepal’s first-ever participation in the World Economic Forum and PM Oli becoming the second Nepali prime minister to deliver speech at Oxford Union after Chandra Shumsher means the world wants to listen to Nepal.
However, there are unexpressed desires that Nepal become part of interests of powerful countries. We must diversify our foreign relations keeping at the centre our national interest, and totally avoid interests of big countries. Second, we have to build our institutions so that they can tackle the fast changing and unpredictable global dynamics. These are the two challenges I see.
Is there anything for us to look forward to three or six months down the road?
I am optimistic. This government has laid strong legal, institutional, structural foundation in the first year of implementation of the constitution and federalism. To develop an investment-friendly environment, we have carried out many legal and structural reforms. These initiatives have started yielding results. We could not spend more than 85 per cent capital budget, but it has yielded 7 per cent economic growth. This means our foundation is solid. This progress on the domestic front will also have a positive impact on the external front. So I see Nepal becoming more visible, more active and the centre of attraction in terms of investment, tourism and other interactions in the days to come. I am hopeful our profile will gradually increase. For this, we have taken some initiatives. In March, we will be hosting the first iteration of ‘Sagarmatha Dialogue’ which will focus on the burning issue of climate change. The event is aimed at attracting global attention towards problems related to climate change facing Nepal. The event is also expected to help forge unanimity of global opinion on such problems.
What specific initiatives are you taking as foreign minister?
The foreign ministry is a bit different from other ministries because foreign policy is a mix of continuity and change. You cannot completely scrap old things and start afresh. There are a few aspects that are permanent in foreign policy. We move ahead building on those aspects in line with the changed context.
We have undergone huge transformation on the domestic front. After attaining stability, we are fully focused on development and prosperity. This is what guides us in setting our policies.
Second, geopolitics is changing fast. We have the world’s second and fifth or sixth largest economies in our neighbourhood. We cannot continue to remain poor. Nepal remaining poor is detrimental for our neighbours too. Third, global dynamics is also changing fast.
Against this backdrop, my first effort will be to conduct foreign policy with broad understanding. Second, the upcoming Sagarmatha Dialogue will contribute to branding and image-building of Nepal. Third, my focus is on institution building.
Existing capacity of our organisation is not enough to tackle new challenges. I envision think tanks that can continuously give inputs. But we have challenges such as lack of resources. Our investment in knowledge, across the board, is meagre. However, I am hopeful of visible progress in terms of institution building, policy making and wider engagement and visibility of Nepal. Protection of national interest and independent pursuit of foreign policy will be at the centre.
A version of this article appears in print on August 26, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.