India must look to boost ties in the Himalayan arc - Hindustan Times
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India must look to boost ties in the Himalayan arc

ByRanjit Rae
Jan 03, 2023 09:20 AM IST

Though the China factor and the politics of terror used by some elements cannot be discounted, stepping up cooperation all along the southern belt of the Himalayas would bring enormous benefits to the countries and peoples

On the northern fringes of South Asia stretches an arc along the Himalayas across five countries. On the northern side, the Himalayas are bounded largely by one country (China) but on the southern side, it is fragmented into Indian Union Territories (Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir), Indian states (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh) and the independent nations of Nepal and Bhutan. As detailed in an earlier piece on these pages, this region of half-a-billion is at relative peace for the first time in decades, though this compact is not necessarily stable or durable, and depends on both external and internal security challenges — especially the challenge posed by China.

This cooperation is critical because China is stepping up ties with other Himalayan States such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
This cooperation is critical because China is stepping up ties with other Himalayan States such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal (Shutterstock)

But the challenge before us is to take advantage of this relative stability and consolidate the current situation. At present, there is little or no cooperation between these various Himalayan entities even though their traditions and cultures, natural resource endowments, and geographies are similar. No mechanism exists to share knowledge, best practices, and lessons learned from diverse development experiences. For instance, Sikkim is a success story in the development of organic agriculture. Bhutan is an excellent case study for harnessing the potential of water resources and hydropower for national development. Bhutan is also an exemplar of high-value tourism. Nepal is a trekker’s paradise and has established good infrastructure along hiking trails. It has also made big strides in harnessing the wealth of Himalayan herbs and medicinal plants. Bhutan and Ladakh are linked to each other through the Drukpa Buddhist tradition. Kashmiri traders were invited by the Malla Kings in Nepal to develop trade links between Nepal and Tibet. Newar artists and artisans are renowned for adorning Buddhist monasteries and viharas across the Himalayas with beautiful frescoes and woodwork; many of the Buddhist statues have been cast in the workshops of Bhaktapur in Nepal. Should we not learn collectively from these experiences? Can they not be replicated elsewhere? Can hydropower not become the glue that integrates the region, including Bangladesh, economically into a virtuous cycle?

How do we leverage these links and connections? Establishing a forum that meets once a year at the governmental level for an exchange of ideas would contribute to the further strengthening of cooperation across the entire Himalayan belt. The region is blessed with young, aspirational people. India can take the lead in hosting an edition of the Himalayan Games that brings together athletes specialising in mountain sports such as mountain biking and high-altitude running. In addition, we can encourage regular cross-border bilateral meetings that are not merely limited to security and border-related issues, but also cover development cooperation and partnership. Now that Nepal has adopted a federal system, the chief ministers of Bihar and the neighbouring Madhesh province should consider meeting regularly. This is not to dilute the role of the Union government that is responsible for foreign policy; the ministry of external affairs and the embassy would play the role of catalysts or facilitators. From my experience in Nepal, some of the issues that become irritants in the relationship arise from small problems that crop up along the border. These issues are easily resolved at the local level and should be nipped in the bud.

Coordination of some border development projects will also be more cost optimal. Rather than duplicate projects, we could think of certain projects such as airports, universities and hospitals that have a catchment area and serve both sides of the border. While India has several think tanks and non-governmental organisations working on global issues, what is striking is the absence of groups specialising in the neighbourhood. We should establish an interdisciplinary organisation that is focussed on the holistic development of the Himalayan region, covering issues relating to development and livelihoods, ecology and the environment, politics, religion and culture and border related issues.

Ties of religion and culture bind this region together. Kailash and Mansarovar are holy for both Hindus and Buddhists. Hundreds of people do the parikrama every year. Could we not think of the development of the Kailash-Mansarovar region as a sacred world heritage site? This will require the cooperation of China, India and Nepal, the three countries that straddle this region. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal had prepared a proposal, but it requires the consent of the three countries.

Though the China factor and the politics of terror used by some elements in this region cannot be discounted, stepping up cooperation all along the southern belt of the Himalayas would bring enormous benefits to the countries and peoples of the region, and also smoothen some of the political and geographical problems encountered from time to time. That this cooperation is critical is also underlined by the fact that China has taken an initiative to step up ties with other Himalayan States such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal, in a forum loosely termed as the Himalayan Quad.

Ranjit Rae is a former diplomat and author of Kathmandu Dilemma, Resetting India Nepal TiesThe views expressed are personal.

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