Unleashing Karnali’s Prosperity

Dr. Narad Bharadwaj


The news about the inauguration of immigration office and other infrastructures of border management at Hilsa, one of the geo-strategically important border passes located in Humla district, is a major initiative of the federal government to unlock the development potential of the Karnali region.

A giant step
For outsiders, the news may carry only a routine value; but for those living in the Karnali region it is a giant step towards promoting Nepal-China cross-border trade and unleashing the creative initiatives of the people living on the northern border regions of western Nepal. In addition to this, it also reflects the determination of the Nepal’s left government to unveil alternative dimensions of international trade freeing it from a perpetual dependence on India.
Located near Purang county of Nagri Prefecture in western Tibet, Hilsa forms an important destination in the north-south road networks connecting important trade centers of far-western Nepal. The construction of physical infrastructures in this border pass carries strategic significance in linking Nepal’s development efforts to much talked-about BRI project of China and to unravel a holistic development space for Karnali Province and entire far-western region of Nepal.
Karnali region, living under the curse of under-development and apathy of the state since centuries, has re-awakened. This region has started to evince some initial spurt of development as the federal government has been working with an objective of economic transformation of Karnali and other regions situated along the northern border. But the task of achieving economic, physical, cultural and educational development of northern border regions remain challenging to both China and Nepal for reasons of geographical inaccessibility, sparse population, inadequate transport connectivity and their distance from the sea shores.
The building of physical infrastructures at important trade centres of northern border areas provide impetus to the economic development of Nepali side of the border. It also contributes to enhancing development and modernity in the remote Tibetan villages on the Chinese side of the border. This is why China is emphasising with and supporting the Nepali aspirations to bring about speedy development of these areas by expanding cross-border connectivity.
Nepal’s federal government has accorded the highest priority to ensure diversity in international trade destinations as a strategy to mitigate the harmful impacts of dependence on one particular country. Hilsa has the potential of becoming the largest and strategically important border point along the northern border in far-western Nepal. Since the majority of tourist bound for Kailas and Mansarovar use this route, the expansion of its infrastructural capacity will not only increase transport connectivity of the people, it will also help bring prosperity for the people and create a sustainable conduit for religious tourism in the country.
Being an important gateway to western Tibet from where important river systems like Sarayu-Karnali, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and the Ganges originate, Hilsa border pass carries the potential of evolving itself as an approach point for mega-projects capable of making huge impact in the development of Central and South Asia.
Purang of Tibet is a religious and cultural hub in its own right. This is one of the ancient trade junctions and a confluence of religious belief systems. It hosts renowned Simbling Monastry and forms a way gate to holy Hindu religious sites such as Kailash and Mansarovar, which are visited by hundreds of thousands of Buddhists, Hindus and other religious devouts using Hilsa as an important milestone in their pilgrimage. This is the reason why the expansion of infrastructure at Hilsa may immensely contribute to developing Nepal as a bridge connecting South and Central Asia.
Just like Keorong, Kuti and Shighatse, Purang also forms an important link to Nepal’s historicity. There are records of trade transactions taking place since ancient times between the people of western Nepal and the Tibetans living in Purang and its surroundings. The Khas rulers who had built a vast empire in western Nepal from the 11th to the 15th centuries had come from Khari state of Tibet. In the heydays of the Khas Empire, its northern border is said to have extended up to Guge province of Tibet. This is the historical privilege which Hilsa border pass can always boast of.
At present, a 196 kilometres long Karnali Highway is under construction connecting Kalikot with Simikot. This is the only highway which links Hilsa at the Chinese border with the rest of the country. It is being constructed by the Nepali army and will connect Hilsa with the border post of Jamunaha at the Nepal-India border upon completion. This is one of the national pride projects of the country. Nepal needs to be guided by the objective of linking its development efforts with BRI project of China while building and expanding cross-border transport connectivity. For this, Nepali side needs to be more seriously focused on building quality border infrastructures from very early phase.
Unfortunately, Nepal’s present day development endeavours do not reflect the lessons learned from the events whose consequences had finally awakened Nepal to the need of building capacities for self- reliance and resilience.
Nepali government had proclaimed in 2015 that it would start building facilities such as immigration, quarantine, customs, security surveillance, dry port and parking lot at various northern border points. But the commitments of the government have fallen flat. The chaotic situation which still exists at Rasuwagadi, the busiest and the largest northern border point, presents an example of a clumsy working style that runs deep in the Nepali bureaucracy.
If a recent media story is to be believed, there are still no luggage X-ray machines, walk-through gates, metal detectors, etc. at the Rasuwagadi border post. It is disconcerting. People are astonished to know that there are not even safe restrooms and facilities for drinking water. Employees are compelled to check luggage with naked eyes sitting under temporary sheds. This sounds incredible.
Since 2015, we are talking about building railway from Keorong to Kathmandu within a span of five to ten years. If we are serious about this, four years are long enough for creating border infrastructures at Rasuwagadi with the capacity for handling the flow of people and goods for coming 30 years.
However, if even a lavatory building for the border security staff and employees has not been put in place there after four years of national emergency brought about by the Indian blockade, will a railway facility for a high speed train plying on standard gauge tracks be constructed at Rasuawgadi in ten years time? It raises a serious question in the competence of those looking after cross-border transport management. It is perhaps also time for the government to furnish answer to the question being raised by the people.
The Chinese are ready and eager to extend the Chinese railway network to Nepal and through it to other countries of South Asia. But the Chinese scholars and writers are worried about minimum capacity of the Nepali government. Nepal needs to develop transport infrastructures on the Nepali side of the border, maintaining the standard and quality of similar infrastructures on the Chinese side. Instead of tinkering with temporary structures designed to meet immediate needs, focus should be directed to building infrastructures which can seamlessly merge with the international standard of transport facilities in the future.

Benefit of doubt
This scribe has not been to Hilsa and other border points in recent months. But a question that is looming in his mind is whether the infrastructures being built there are good enough for being part of overarching BRI project to be implemented in the future or not. The left government should be given the benefit of doubt but it should also not be forgotten that roads to hell are often paved with good intentions.  

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