New Delhi: In a conciliatory tone, Nepal Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali Friday said Kathmandu is still desirous of having a conversation over the Kalapani-Lipulekh border issue with India as “mutual trust, understanding and respect for each other’s sensitivities and concern” remain the basis of bilateral ties.
Gyawali, who is on a three-day visit to India, is the first foreign minister of any country to visit India this year.
This is also the first high-level visit from Nepal to India since bilateral ties between both neighbours hit a low when Kathmandu issued a new political map, claiming about 335 square kilometres of the unsettled boundary near Kalapani region as its own.
“Needless to say that relationships between neighbours have their own characters. Mutual trust, understanding and respect for each other’s sensitivities and concerns contribute to strengthen the foundation of such relationships. Building and nurturing trust is absolutely essential for the health and harmony of the relations,” Gyawali said in his address at the Indian Council of World Affairs.
“In this spirit, we desire to start the conversation with a view to resolving the question of boundary alignment in the remaining segments. Many of you may be aware that Nepal and India share over 1,800-km long international boundary, most of which is jointly mapped. Only in the stretches of some kilometers, the work remains to be completed,” he added.
Asked by ThePrint how much of a kilometre he was talking about that remained unsettled, Gyawali said compared to the entire border that both countries share, the areas around Kalapani and Susta regions is a “smaller segment”, but he said it is “unfinished work” and so there should be “urgency” in completing it.
He also said in 1981 a joint technical committee was set up for the purpose of mapping the India-Nepal boundary, but the Susta and Kalapani segments were left out and the tenure of the committee ended in 2007.
Gyawali also underlined that in 2014 a Border Working Group was created and a mechanism at the level of foreign secretaries was set up to resolve the matter.
“Finding an agreeable boundary alignment in these segments may not only take us to the stage of a fully settled international boundary, but may also help generate a positive vibe in public sentiment as well as help instill greater degree of trust and confidence in bilateral relations. I believe that we can work out and reach that stage,” he added.
Gyawali also highlighted that while both sides have agreed to resolve the boundary question through talks, both New Delhi and Kathmandu have “shown wisdom that despite the difference in one area, the momentum of our overall engagements is continued”.
“We are also mindful that we should not let any outstanding issue between us be there forever and become irritant in an otherwise friendly relationship,” he said.
Gyawali said the matter was discussed at the India-Nepal Joint Commission Meeting (JCM) that he held with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar Friday.
According to a press release issued by the Ministry External Affairs after the JCM, border management was discussed along with other issues of bilateral significance with Nepal at the meeting.
Before the JCM, Gyawali and Jaishankar also held a closed-door bilateral interaction.
“Yes we discussed about the mechanism (on the boundary). Some issues, some steps cannot be discussed openly, but we have discussed how we can resolve this outstanding issue,” he said.
The JCM is the highest level dialogue mechanism between both the countries that takes place at the level of foreign ministers.
Releasing Nepal map not ‘unilateral’, but a ‘consequence’
Last year in May, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli released a new political map, claiming 335 sq km of land around the Kalapani region, including Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh, within Nepal’s borders, taking the total area of Nepal to 1,47,516 sq km from 1,47,181 sq km.
India subsequently rejected the map, stating it will not accept such an “artificial enlargement of territorial claims” and called it an “unilateral act”.
Gyawali, however, said it will be incorrect to term the move by the Oli government “unilateral” as it was a consequence of India first changing its political map in 2019.
“It was a consequence because prior to that the 8th edition of the political map of India was published. We were awaiting that until and unless the mechanism of foreign secretaries will sit down and explore some ways that will acknowledge this to be an outstanding meeting. But there was no meeting and those areas where we have strong arguments were included in the maps. Let’s review this and not make allegations that this was a unilateral step,” he said.
‘Alarmingly high trade imbalance’ with India
Gyawali highlighted the issue of rising trade deficit that Nepal faces with India even as he sought more market access for exports from the Himalayan nation.
“For Nepal, India remains the largest trading partner. However, the problem of bilateral trade deficit looms large. Our economy cannot sustain this alarmingly high trade imbalance,” he said.
As a result, Gyawali said, Nepal has proposed certain measures that would “offer us some genuine space and help us expand our export base” such as greater market access, and Nepal wants “easier access” for their primary products.
“Nepal is not a competitor of India in trade. I am sure many of you would agree when I say that making Nepal economically strong serves India’s interest too. We have likewise flagged a few proposals for expansion and streamlining of the current transit arrangements. We like to see an early conclusion of this review process as well,” he said.
On the Pancheshwar multipurpose project that has been pending for over 25 years now, Gyawali said, “We need to generate a success story by sincerely implementing the projects agreed in the past.”
He added: “Our recent conversation on this transformative mega project has been encouraging. Once realised, Pancheshwar will not only be a big project on its own, but also set a success story of how we can make arrangements for cost and benefit sharing in harnessing of our vast water resources.”
Gyawali also stressed that despite concluding a bilateral Power Trade Agreement in 2014 that incorporated the provision of free trade of electricity, power traders and developers are awaiting issuance of facilitative procedures for cross-border electricity trade.
On India’s Covid-19 vaccine drive that will start from Saturday, Gyawali said Nepal will be availing these vaccines as they are “next door”.
“Prime Minister Oli said, while in this very city three years ago, that Nepal desired to create a strong edifice of trust in our relations; desired to create a relationship which would make our generation and the future equally proud. We want to see a 21st Century Nepal-India relationship, which is forward-looking and firmly founded on equality, mutual respect, justice and understanding of each other’s concerns and sensitivities,” he added.