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    South Asia
     Sep 5, 2008
For Prachanda, a tale of two cities
By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU - From the standpoint of astrologers, it heralded an ominous start. Within hours after taking the oath as the Republic of Nepal's first elected - and Maoist - prime minister, Prachanda received reports of the collapse of a river embankment resulting in floods that have left more than 50,000 people homeless in the country's southeastern plains.

The incident came days ahead of his visit to China, a controversial move that would end a long tradition requiring new Nepali leaders to take a trip to India first. The move has been criticized by some, but others see it as a chance to rebalance political relationships between the two powerful neighbors.

And, as the fallout from the devastating flooding was about to 

display, some decades-old agreements between Nepal and India may be in need of renegotiating.

Before leaving for Beijing, Prachanda toured flood-affected areas, collecting firsthand information on the scale of the disaster and the hardships rural people were forced to endure. An unspecified number villagers living along the Koshi River were swept away, together with their livestock and livelihoods. Initial estimates of Agriculture Ministry officials put the loss of crops, mainly paddy, at 300 million rupees (US$4.3 million).

Farmers in the area lost their vegetable fields, fisheries and crops such as banana and sugarcane. Administrators in Sunsari district reported the arrival of 25,000 marooned Indian nationals from the state of Bihar who were seeking shelter and relief. Humanitarian considerations compelled Nepali authorities to shoulder this additional responsibility.

The eastern region remains cut off from the rest of the country as sections of highway and bridges were washed away. It is likely to take several weeks, if not months, before any sustainable traffic link between the regions is restored. Nepal's industrial and commercial hub, Biraatnagar, is located in this region.

Devastation across the border in India created an equally unfortunate scenario. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described it as a national calamity. More than 2 million people are said to have been affected in northern Bihar.

Indian authorities are struggling with an onslaught of problems: helping with relief efforts, working to regulate the river's flow which is swiftly changing course, and countering accusations from the Nepali side of gross negligence in their repair and maintenance of the Koshi barrage and other associated structures.

The Koshi Agreement, signed in 1954, stipulates that the Indian government is responsible for the operation, protection and management of the project for 199 years. India gets the bulk of the benefits, mainly in terms of irrigating farmlands.

The cause of the latest havoc is negligence on the part of those responsible for monitoring and maintenance. It is not the monsoon waters which were initially thought to have suddenly raised the level of the river. Experts say the river flow was actually lower than average for the month of August.

"It was not a natural disaster, but a man-made tragedy," said expert Dipak Gyawali in a newspaper interview published on September 1. Gyawali described the Indian Embassy statement on the issue as "highly undiplomatic and breathtakingly ill-informed".

The Indian Embassy has placed the blame on Nepal. Coincidentally, three former foreign ministers representing three different political parties have made public statements essentially saying the same thing: that it is India which is to be blamed for the losses Nepal is made to suffer. The question of compensation has also been raised. Incumbent Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, who hails from the affected region, flew to New Delhi last week to hold talks with Indian authorities.

While Prachanda has been criticized on other issues, such as an attempt to impose a communist agenda on the newly-born republic, none of the active political parties has objected to his statement on the breach of the Koshi bank and the subsequent devastation. He said the 1954 Koshi Agreement was a "historic mistake", because the lion's share of benefits are taken by the Indian side - leaving Nepal to endure all the bad effects of the project.

Koshi is one several treaties that India has concluded with Nepal since 1950 - the year Nepal overthrew a 104-year-old autocratic rule by the Ranas. Also controversial is the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950. There is a widely-held perception in Nepal that these are examples of "unequal treaties".

The Maoists' voice for a review of these pacts is louder than others. That the Koshi case has come to the forefront is viewed by some analysts as a blessing in disguise for Prachanda. It has gone some way in justifying his decision to skip the tradition of making New Delhi his first port of call.

King Birendra, who was killed in a palace assassination in 2001, had once publicly said that Nepal felt it was "cheated" by India on the Koshi project.

In Beijing, President Hu Jintao made a rare gesture and thanked Prachanda for attending the Olympics' closing ceremony just a week after being sworn in. "This [trip] demonstrates the attention Nepal attaches to relations with China," Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying on August 25.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao added, "Ours is a model relationship between a big and smaller neighbor based on mutual respect and equality." On return to Kathmandu, Prachanda described his journey to the Chinese capital as "highly successful".

To allay purported Indian suspicions, he said the visit was event-specific and that his first "political" visit would take him to India shortly - and before he goes to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York at the end of this month.

"In fact, there was no need for him to offer these apologetic remarks [about visiting India]," Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, a former ambassador to India, told Asia Times Online. Thapa, who also had a stint as foreign minister, was twice ambassador to the United States.

An opinion poll conducted by a Nepali news agency this week showed that almost 40% of 3,067 respondents felt that Prachanda made the right move in traveling to China first. Only about 9% of readers thought he should have gone to India first. The remaining 41% of voters said it didn't matter.

It probably does matter to New Delhi. There seem to be people in Indian officialdom who felt slighted at Prachanda's decision to break the tradition of traveling to New Delhi to pay respects to the Indian establishment. They apparently do not realize that Nepal has abandoned more significant traditions, such as the monarchy and the Hindu religion.

Referring to Prachanda's choice of Beijing over New Delhi, one Times of India writer dubbed it a "snub" as the Indian invitation was sent much earlier. Retired colonel R Hariharan wrote on August 12, "If China's influence expands rapidly in Nepal, it holds serious portends for New Delhi's strategic security calculations."

Because India is a democracy, it does not lack divergent views on contemporary issues. This applies to the Indian policy on Nepal as well.

In the words of Dr S Chandrasekharan of the South Asia Analysis Group, "New Delhi needs to comprehend Prachanda's initiative for a parity in relations with India and China in a changing world. It is time India finally gives up this 'make-believe' special relations which never existed in the minds of the Nepalese administration".

Arvind R Deo, India's ambassador to Nepal in the late 1980s, has a slightly different opinion. In his view, although China shares a border with Nepal, it is more of a notional neighbor as high Himalayan peaks make economic interaction difficult. Geopolitical considerations continue to be relevant. Indian diplomacy therefore needs to be conducted with greater effectiveness, wrote Deo on August 29 in The Economic Times.

However, Deo also criticized public attempts to characterize Nepal as a client state of India and called Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood's conspicuous absence at the airport to see Prachanda off to China "ill-conceived".

King Prithvi Naryan Shaha, who laid the foundation for present-day Nepal in 1768, wanted his country to live at peace with India and China. Although that basic premise holds force today, tumultuous changes have taken place in both countries over the past 240 years. For example, the two nations - together with Pakistan - have become nuclear powers.

"We cannot live at peace even with India and China, unless we live at peace with the rest of the world," wrote the late Y N Khanal, a longstanding expert on Nepali diplomacy, in a book published in 2000.

Dhruba Adhikary, a former head of Nepal Press Institute, is a Kathmandu-based journalist.

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