In Janakpur, capital of the Mithilanchal region that now falls in Nepal, people say a girl from the area should never marry a boy from the west (which, in this case, would be Uttar Pradesh in India). The reference of course is to the tribulations faced by Sita, daughter of Janak in the Ramayan, after her marriage to Ram from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
That negative opinion of India, which flares up every now and then in India’s relationship with Nepal, surfaced again after the Kosi river broke through its embankments in the last few days, breaching the Bhimnagar barrage located a mere 12km within Nepal, wreaking havoc in parts of Nepal and across the border in Bihar.
The floods created a wave of anti-India feeling in Nepal.
And India, for its part, claim the fault is Nepal’s.
Khom Raj Dahal, deputy director general of Nepal’s department of water-induced disaster prevention, told The Kathmandu Post that India must be held squarely responsible for the devastation because it “did not carry out repair and maintenance work on the Kosi barrage and the embankment along the river, thereby violating the 1954 Nepal-India Kosi agreement”. The Indian embassy in Nepal issued a statement saying that an Indian technical team had been ready and waiting to help, but was prevented from reaching the site on time by Nepal.
Water wars (or squabbles) are common in South Asia and India is usually portrayed as the villain of the piece. India and Pakistan have been squabbling over New Delhi’s decision to build an additional reservoir on the Baglihar dam, which, Pakistan says, violates the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. India and Bangladesh haven’t stopped quarrelling over sharing the Ganga waters, despite their 1996 accord, because the Bangladesh National Party-led governments that succeeded the government that signed the agreement did not share the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League’s enthusiasm for India.
Despite several water-sharing agreements (such as the 1954 Kosi treaty and the 1996 Mahakali treaty), bad blood between India and Nepal prevented both sides from looking at water as a common resource which can be used for agriculture as well as electricity generation on both sides of the border. Nepal’s mountain rivers could produce as much as 82,000MW annually as they flow down to the Indian plains.
And India desperately needs power to fuel its rapidly expanding economy.
Even as the Kosi scorned man-made boundaries, destroying three million homes in Nepal and 2.5 million in India, (resulting in 42 deaths), New Delhi and Kathmandu got embroiled in a seemingly petty argument: Why was Nepal’s Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, undertaking his first visit as head of state to China instead of India, as every other Nepalese prime minister has done?
India allowed Maoist leaders such as Prachanda, finance minister Baburam Bhattarai and information minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara to live in disguise in India when they were being hunted by former king Gyanendra in 2006. And New Delhi gives Nepalese nationals a vast number of privileges, including the right to “national treatment”, for jobs in government and the army. The feeling here is that the Maoists are simply not sympathetic to India’s security concerns.
As far as water is concerned, India constantly cites the Bhutan example and wonders why Nepal can’t be more like the hill kingdom which has allowed India to build several dams over rivers, produces electricity and sells surplus power to India. As a result, Bhutan’s per capita income is only second to Sri Lanka in the South Asian region.
But the Bhutan comparison is bad diplomacy because it infuriates Kathmandu each time India makes it — Indian officials make it all the time. The Maoists, meanwhile, point out that India continued to support the Nepali Congress in the elections — as well as in the race for prime ministership — despite the party’s mass unpopularity. So, when Prachanda flew to Sunsari district on the border to inspect the damage, he called the 1954 Kosi treaty a “historic blunder”.
Meanwhile, Bihar’s politicians have jumped into the act. Railway minister Lalu Prasad and his wife and former chief minister Rabri Devi appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for help. Chief minister Nitish Kumar warned of an impending catastrophe, and requested external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee to speak to the Nepalese authorities.
As Singh prepares to undertake an aerial survey of the area on Thursday — an exercise that helps focus the mind, a water resources ministry official said — he might want to borrow from Power Trading Corp. chief Tantra Narayan Thakur’s Nepal experience.
Seven years ago when he went to Nepal, Thakur found that Kathmandu was happy to produce 157MW a year. But if Nepal could fast-track its hydro-electric projects to generate 10,000MW in 10 years, of which it consumed 2,000MW and exported the rest to India, it could earn $2.7 billion a year.
If Singh can convince Kathmandu to buy that promise, rivers such as the Kosi may just be transformed into picture postcards of happiness and growth.
To read all of Jyoti Malhotra’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/betweenthelines
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
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