BY Rakesh Tiwary
Nepal and India, two countries of South Asia, share one of the largest geohydrological regions called Ganga Brahmaputra Basin. Nepal covers a large part of the upper catchment of sub basin of Ganges River. Major rivers of the sub-basin like Mahakali, Karnali, Sapt Gandaki and Sapt Kosi originate from Trans-Himalaya region, cross Nepal and flow southwards to join Ganges in India, and so are international or trans-boundary in nature. Though Nepal occupies 13 percent of the total drainage of the Ganges basin, its contribution to the flow of Ganges river is much more significant, amounting to about 45 percent to its average annual flow. In the dry seasons, Nepal’s contribution to the total run-off is as much as 70 percent. These hydrological features bind India and Nepal in a relationship of geographical interdependence and economic complementarities on of water resource development.
Although the potential for joint endeavors is considerable, the cooperation between these two countries on the issues related to water resource development has not been easy and forthcoming. Their efforts have been heavily influenced by geopolitics; marked by emphasis on historical wrongs (real and perceived), big-small country syndrome, failure in understanding each other’s sensitivities, aggressive posture and negative approach. Major part of second half of last century was lost in the process, incurring huge opportunity cost of delay for both countries.
However, a new chapter in the Indo-Nepal relations was opened when the Mahakali Treaty was signed by the then Prime Minister of India Mr. P.V. Narsimha Rao, and the then Prime Minister of Nepal, Mr. Sher Bahadur Deuba, in February 1996 for joint utilization of trans-boundary water resources of the Mahakali River. The signing of Treaty was preceded not merely by intense negotiations between the two governments, the track II meetings, but also by extensive informal consultations covering all parties in Nepal, so as to facilitate the process of parliamentary ratification in Nepal.
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Baggage of Past
Despite huge potentialities and commonalities of objectives, water resource development has faced many setbacks due to political and economic factors that acted against the interests of the two countries. Nepal’s complaint about getting unfair deal or being cheated in earlier treaties like, The Kosi Treaty (1954) and the Gandak Treaty (1959), cast its shadow over future collaborations. Nepal water resource experts complained about unilateral initiatives of India, nominal and delayed compensations, disregard for Nepal’s interest and unequal benefits. These projects created ill feeling and mistrust between two nations leading to a big gap in joint water resource development initiatives.
The efforts between the two countries have suffered due to twin factors. Firstly, policy makers of India for long failed to understand apprehensions of the smaller neighbor. Nepal, a small kingdom, sandwiched between two giant nations has its own world view. India took Nepal for granted on many occasions. Secondly, Nepal overemphasized sovereignty issues and nursed the grudge and mistrust for long. The history of negotiations regarding water projects on Indo Nepal transboundary waters got dominated by controversies primarily due to perceptional difference and the blame game instead of technical difficulties.
The Nepalese believe that India is draining Nepal’s watershed for its own benefit. Nepalese also blame that Indian water resource bureaucracy has shown business as usual approach combined with arrogance of power and a secretive attitude. The influence of geopolitics in Indo Nepal water resource development has been disproportionate and troublesome. Nepalese have long viewed India as a hegemonic power that arm-twists neighbours for unfair agreements. While Nepal showed disenchantment over joint water resource projects, irritant also arose in bilateral relation due to Nepal’s balancing act with China and turbulence in domestic politics of the kingdom.
India, in turn, blames Nepal as suffering from small country syndrome, imagining non-existent conspiracies and ignoring India’s contribution in different sector of economy of Nepal. Further, fragile and unstable political uncertainties in Nepal also played a role in fueling anti-Indian sentiments.
Decades have been lost due to prolonged discussions and Nepal’s cautious and deliberate low profile approach. Both the parties are aware of past misgivings, however the negotiations over Mahakali will require out of box thinking to avoid burden of history.
Media: Critical yet neglected actor
In transboundary water resources development, planning, geography, politics and technology play major role. However, due to the nature of the resource, asymmetry in size and power, post-colonial era international relations- public opinion has become an important factor. Public perception, information, communication and dissemination thus formed, has become important in the development process. But these rarely figure during project planning stages. Only when a debate and the resulting conflict reach a dead end, the need for information and communication is felt. In many ways disregard of media has impeded development of water resource for cooperative bilateral and regional development. Media coverage on water resources in Nepal is generally replete with sentimentality and concerns. Many times such sentiments are genuine, but the often are alarmist.
The reporting on Pancheswar in some of the newspapers, which are backed by opposition political parties, had little to do with water resources. Instead, they read like campaigns aimed at creating a climate for political vendetta. The slogans “what oil is to Middle East, water is for Nepal” or “water is Nepal’s strategic resource” have done more harm than good. It has made transboundary water resource an issue of domestic politics. The intense politicisation of the Pancheswar, reflexing to what the opposition in Nepal refers to as “sell-out” has masked the basic issues in water resource development. Unfortunately, the opponents of the project in Nepal are being glorified as nationalists by a section of reporters. This definitely affects moral and commitment of negotiators from our smaller neighbor as they have to interact with extreme cautiousness and apprehension. Even after striking best possible trade off, they may be labelled as negotiators who sold out national interest.
Information management has emerged as one of the pre-requisite in transboundary water resource development and management in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin, for more objective information dissemination. The impact of information on issues, which have cross border implications, till now, has been poorly understood and incorporated. The setting up of national and regional water resources centers, even one at the international level could help build trust specially in sharing scientific information between experts and the media. Such an institution should encourage participation of professionals from the private and NGO sector in a more productive manner. Further breakthrough may be possible through increased interaction among the media representatives across the border. Journalists from Nepal should be encouraged to write and present their views in Indian papers and vice-versa.
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Nepal wants equal sense of participation, both in words and action, in planning and implementation of water resource projects. Such projects are based on mutual interests and reciprocities, and thus they are not client-patron situations. When two sovereign entities with highly asymmetrical size and capacities are negotiating on joint projects, attitudes and sensitivities play critical role. Indian side particularly diplomats must take care while interacting/negotiating with Nepalese counterparts. Realization of water resource projects requires diplomacy, bargaining skill and an astute vision for spin-offs.
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*Excerpted from the author’s detailed study of the Mahakali Treaty. Full text available at: