NEW DELHI-The Nepali Embassy on Barakhamba Road is perhaps the oldest legation in the Indian capital, and its age is beginning to show. The lawn, the porch and the drive-way bear the look of bygone eras. Inside, the spiral staircase, cavernous corridors and frayed carpets carry an imperial ambience.
Business is slack at the mission. Visiting Nepalis still queue up at the gate during the afternoon to obtain recommendations for railway reservations, but other than that there is very little activity even during office hours to show that this is Nepal's most important diplomatic mission.
Durgesh Man Singh presides over this regal setting but doesn't have much to do when Sitaram Yechury is the intermediary between the prime ministers of the two countries. It would be unkind to characterise Durgesh Daktarsah'b as a lame duck envoy, but with a change of guards imminent at Singha Darbar and Shital Nibas, he probably fails to convey the sense of authority required to deal with the highly protocol-conscious bureaucracy of South Block.
There are several urgent issues that needs to be raised in New Delhi. Trucks carrying clinker and cement have resumed crossing the border, but a formal exemption on export of essential goods for Nepal is yet to be granted. The non-tariff barriers on Nepali produce into India continue despite promises to have them eased. Infected animals, birds and all kinds of men and women cross the open Indo-Nepal border at will. But cauliflower and cabbages need to be quarantined at the border.
Nepalis going to India need to carry wads of hundred-rupee notes because Indian currency of higher denomination is not legal tender in Nepal, a decision taken at the insistence of Indian government. India has cut back on petroleum to Nepal because NOC hasn't paid off its debt. Inundation in the Tarai caused largely by road embankments on the Indian side regularly submerges Nepali territory.
The Indians seem to have little interest in modifying the design of these roads, let alone to stop building barriers across natural river courses. The Tarai slopes at one meter every four km, which means even a small levee 15km on the otherside can impound water upstream. Indian officials routinely dismiss Nepali apprehensions as exaggerated. Flooding in Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh is a serious matter that requires cooperation. Pushing the problem upstream with unilateral interventions in Madhubani or Sitamarhi will only complicate things further.
Here in Delhi, Indians are getting all worked up about the 'C' word, China. Foreing policy hawks obsess about the prospect of the Chinese railway coming to Khasa. The Constituent Assembly will be sitting in a Chinese-built convention centre, Nepali civil servants will soon start getting treated at a hospital being built by the Chinese, and the road from Chitwan to Kerung will probably be ready by the time Indians begin to design their Tarai road network.
Durgesh invited Delhi media-persons for tea and t?te-?-t?te one evening this week. He probably lacks the budget to do anything better, yet the evening turns out to be lively. Over a mouthful of dalmot, a worldly-wise hack explains India's fears: "The Chinese are the biggest donors in Sri Lanka, they are close to the Pakistan Army, Burma is in a tight embrace, and Bangladesh is firmly in their grip. The semi-independent kingdom of Bhutan doesn't count. So that leaves Nepal and Pushpa Kamal Dahal's rhetoric about equi-proximity. South Block has reason to be alarmed."
The future of the India-Nepal relationship will probably depend on the way we address these concerns. Once they are settled to mutual satisfaction, a renegotiation of the Treaty of 1950 will probably be a matter of minor detail.