Nepali Times
Nepal’s new neighbours


A quarter of a century after Sikkim became the fourth Indian state to share borders with Nepal, two new Indian states are soon going to appear as its neighbours: to the south, a truncated Bihar, and along its western border, Uttaranchal.

The two new states have resulted from New Delhi and the parent states finally recognising and acceding to voices from below. Their emergence has been met with some degree of scepticism in other larger states in India. But the confusion and noise is mainly among people who think that this is the beginning of the disintegration of the Indian union. Supporters of the new states say these fears are clearly unwarranted. They argue that these regions are vastly different from the centres of power that determined their development since independence and earlier, and hence the separation is with just cause.

There are implications for Nepal to having these two new neighbours. The adjoining Bihar is going to be even poorer than before-with its resource-rich southern half breaking off to form Jharkhand with its capital in Ranchi. Bihar of proxy chief minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, is the vote base of his Rastriya Janata Dal and therefore where his strength lies. However, the rump Bihar is where land reforms have had little impact, and the politics of caste warfare is rife, the marginal poor are amongst the poorest in the country. The poorest regions of India's poorest state are in northern Bihar next to Nepal, and economic migrants from these areas have traditionally moved to the tarai plains and Kathmandu Valley in search of jobs.

The new state of Uttaranchal is coming up in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions that the Gorkhali conquistadors had captured and ruled ruthlessly (a fact that is resented even today) around the turn of the 18th century only to lose it to the British in the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli. And it has problems very similar to Nepal's. The people are ethnically and temperamentally closer to the western hill Nepalis than to the plainsfolk down south. The economy is largely dependent on tourism; there is large-scale migration of menfolk to the plains to work (who send back money and bring back AIDS as well); and the state has high hydroelectric potential. Economic disparities too are large and glaring, and the poverty in the hills is strikingly similar to Nepal's own.

Here too there is cross-border migration, but this time it is one that goes from Nepal to the hills across the Mahakali river. While the population of the poverty-stricken hills of western Nepal migrates to cities all over India, there is quite a number that hike across into Uttaranchal, whose own menfolk migrate to Delhi to find better work. In Uttaranchal, Nepalis (called Dotiyals) serve as porters in hill stations like Nainital and Mussoorie and carry loads for pilgrims-and the pilgrims themselves-at holy places like Gaumukh and Kedarnath.

The point to be made here is that all these regions and peoples are victims of relentless economic marginalisation. Economic refugees, and South Asia has loads of them. There is also increased hostility toward migrants these days and may better explain why Bangladeshi refugees are hated in Delhi by other refugees from Bihar and elsewhere, or Nepali migrant workers find it increasingly difficult in Bangalore and other cities, or why the madhesi (plainsfolk from Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal's own tarai) is much looked down upon in Nepal's hill country. There is enough internal displacement due to underdevelopment, and the outsider is clearly unwelcome.

The lesson can be taken further. Even if not faced with the demand for greater autonomy or statehood, there are lessons in administering distant regions that Nepal could well learn. The poverty of the far-flung areas is in stark contrast to the affluence of the capital. It is the striking disparity that forces people to flee one place for another, seek greater control over their lives and resources like the Jharkhandis, and cause Maoists to be as active in Bihar as in Nepal. Whether it is the Bihari coming across the open border or the Nepali going to the plains or the increasing human pressures on Kathmandu, it is the same forces at work. And the same quiet desperation to get away.

The clamour for autonomy is not merely a product of linguistic or cultural chauvinism, although the organisation of states in India was largely on linguistic lines and had to give way some day. It has to do with development and underdevelopment. For too long these regions were treated as "internal colonies" and remained in various stages of underdevelopment, while the money earned from the resource base fled to the centres of power. It is the clamour for development that creates fissiparous tendencies. Himachal Pradesh is an example of how a state was able to successfully adopt its own development model since its separation from a larger Punjab. There are other demands as well, and some believe that a Gorkhaland is not a distant possibility.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)