Pursuing A Dream Of Inland Water Navigation
Dr. Nard Bharadwaj
The recent news about India laying a foundation stone for an inland waterway terminal at Varanasi reminded me of an interesting conversation I had in 1997 with the then Prime Minister of India Inder Kumar Gujaral on inland water navigation in Nepal and India. Those were the days when India’s media fraternity was awash with the smugness of discovering a new theory called the ‘Gujaral Doctrine’ in the wake of a long spell of doctrinal drought that had ensued the demise of the controversial Neruvian Doctrine of coercing neighbours.
The context of my encounter with no other person than the proponent of the ‘Gujaral Doctrine’ was that I was a member of a delegation of senior journalists visiting New Delhi at the invitation of the Ministry of External Affairs of India before the impending official visit of Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujaral to Nepal. Other members of the media delegation were Harihar Birahi, Kishor Nepal, Shambhu Shrestha, Tirtha Koirala, Kishor Shrestha, Devendra Gautam, Yogesh Upadhyaya and others.
On the second day of our visit, we had an appointment with Prime Minister Gujaral at his office in South Block. He met us there as he was also looking after the portfolio of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at that time. It was my first ever visit to South Block and was impressed by the aura of the vastness of its complex and the uniquely classical structure of the building with broad corridors, wide stairways, spacious halls and office rooms.
Before meeting with Prime Minister Gujaral, we were welcomed by the then Foreign Secretary of India Salman Haidar who seemed to me an unassuming, gentle and courteous senior government officer. After an exchange of greetings, he held a book in his hand. It was a book titled ‘Nepal’s Quest for Health’ authored by Dr. Hemanga Dixit and asked us if we knew its author. We did know Dr. Dixit because he is a familiar name in the field of medicine and social services in Nepal. He said that he was one of his classmates.
The high regard with which the Indian Foreign Secretary spoke about a Nepalese scholar was quite edifying. He then talked about the high points of Nepal India relation and said that India was happy to contribute its bit in the economic development of Nepal. He extolled the Nepal- India relations dating back to antiquity and tried to explain how it was nurtured by common cultural and religious value systems.
Our meeting with him lasted for about fifteen minutes. Then we were conducted to the Prime Minister’s chamber which was huge and spacious. Prime Minister Gujaral was seated on a high chair, his rather slim figure almost invisible in the room surrounding. He stood up and shook hands with each of us. Then he spoke about Nepal-India relations, the new foreign policy perspective being projected in the form of the Gujaral Doctrine and the new era of common prosperity which his doctrine of giving to smaller neighbours without expectation of any return was going to unleash in South Asia.
After he finished his remarks, the foreign secretary of India turned towards us and asked if we had any queries with the Prime Minister. I expected senior colleagues to take the lead in asking questions. But a long time passed in an eerie silence without any one uttering a word from our side. Then I decided to ask some questions. My first question was about how India could help Nepal in resolving the Bhutanese refugee problem. He said that it was a bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan, in which India had no role to play. I asked about the urgency in redrawing the blurred points along the Nepal-India border, trying myself to sound as soft and unobtrusive as possible. He answered that these were minor issues in the long and cordial relations between the two countries and would be resolved through high-level talks.
I asked another question about how India could help in ensuring unhindered access of Nepal to the nearest Indian ports like Haldiya and its right to use the Siliguri corridor to gain access to the Banglabandh port of Bangladesh. Gujaral deflected my question by not directly touching on the issue, focusing instead only on broad security challenges. I waited for some time, but no one was asking anything. So I asked, “Your Excellency, the Nepalese people have high aspirations for opening river navigation between Nepal and India as a way of gaining easy access to the sea. Do you have any concrete views about it?”
After a brief pause he answered, “Which rivers on earth are navigable in Nepal and India?” His answer shook the ground under my feet as I was not adequately informed on the issue I raised, and I felt quite awkward. Still, I gathered myself and said, “The Ganges, the Barahmaputra, the Koshi and the Gandaki, for example. He fell silent. Then Foreign Secretary Salman Haidar must have considered it too much. He broke the silence by saying, ‘Gentleman, you have asked too many questions, let us give other friends a chance to squeeze in’.
I could not miss the message carried by his polite remonstrance. After this, the meeting assumed the form of an informal exchange of memories, events and personalities. I was rather ill at ease and unhappy because I had not received any substantial points for the news story that I was to post to the newspaper I was working for at that time. Still, I prepared a report after returning to Hotel Kanisk where we were accommodated. The next day my story was printed in the Sri Sagarmatha and the Everest Herald.
Foreign Secretary Salman Haidar saw us off after our meeting with Prime Minister Gujaral was over. On the way, he shook my hand and congratulated me for asking the most difficult questions to Prime Minister Gujaral.
After a few days, Gujaral visited Nepal. There was a cocktail party at the Embassy of India at Lainchaur. I was also invited. When I reached the party venue, Mr. Haidar was there. He welcomed me and took me to a lady called Monika Kapil Mohta. I had not met her before but knew that she was the information secretary at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu.
“Monika, do you know this gentleman?” he asked her pointing towards me. “I am afraid not sir,” she replied. He is a man you have to watch out. He asked so many difficult questions to Prime Minister Gujaral in Delhi,” he informed. She then turned to me and said she was happy to hear that and would like to meet me again. But the next meeting never took place.
During Gujaral’s visit to Nepal, the proposal for inland water navigation was indeed brought up for discussion, and it was mentioned in the joint statement that both the sides would expedite joint study of river navigation. Despite commitment at the highest level, no serious effort, however, was made to carry out a substantial study in this regard.
Captivity of land-locked geography
After nineteen years, the issue which I had raised only to be dismissed as an unfeasible proposition has become a reality. With the trial run of two Indian cargo vessels from Varanasi to Haldiya, where two major river systems of Nepal--the Koshi and the Gandaki- also meet, the Nepalese dream of inland water navigation may be near to realisation. This is a great breakthrough in river navigation which possesses the potential for not only transforming the economic life of north India but also offers the possibility of freeing Nepal from the captivity of its land-locked geography.