May 30, 2020
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A Barrage Too Far?

The landmark Mahakali treaty gets entangled in Nepal's politics

A Barrage Too Far?

FIVE months after Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba signed the treaty with P.V. Narasimha Rao in New Delhi, the Mahakali project is waist-deep in troubled domestic waters. In January, the issue had been resolved in Kathmandu after Deuba secured an ever-elusive political consensus, but this now threatens to spiral out of the ruling coalition's hands.

The treaty envisages by far the biggest bilateral undertaking in South Asia—the multi-billion dollar Pancheswore project that would produce over 6,000 MW of electricity—and the proposed 315-metre high dam will be one of the highest in the world. An elated Deuba had described the treaty, whose equitable cost-benefit sharing represents a high in bilateral ties, as an answer to the Himalayan kingdom's vast untapped water resources.

But as all such treaties go, it has to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of the two houses of Nepal's Parliament. The government is likely to table the treaty by July-end or early August. As D-day nears, there are ominous signs. After hedging for months, on July 8, leader of the opposition Manmohan Adhikari has appealed to the ruling coalition not to table the treaty in the ongoing session.

The contention: his party, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), is studying the treaty and won't commit itself on such a serious issue in a hurry. If it decides to distance itself further,it will be a complete U-turn. When Nepal was swept by the Mahakali euphoria in January, the UML had projected itself as a gracious opposition that made the consensus, and hence the treaty, possible. On January 28, it had endorsed an all-party consensus document to allow visiting Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his counterpart Prakash Chandra Lohani to initial the treaty the next day.

Lohani is not despairing, yet. "The UML is a responsible opposition. I am confident it will act responsibly," he says. However, the UML has many reasons to be reluctant. For one, Nepalis are deeply sceptical about pursuing bilateralism with India. Then, there is the ever-present spectre of mid-term polls, given the fragile parliamentary make-up.

Paranoia regarding India is reflected in the fact that the 1990 constitution requires any security or resource-sharing agreement with another government to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. "This (Article 126) is a concrete manifestation of Nepal's long-harboured grudge against India," says ex-foreign minister Rishikesh Shah. It stems from an impression that Nepal hasn't received a fair deal from India in the Kosi and Gandak water-sharing arrangements.

Article 126 is intended as a safeguard against the government of the day succumbing to external pressure in matters of vital interest, says Shah. "You only have to travel to villages in Sunsari and Saptari to find out what farmers, who get a nominal share of Kosi water, feel about the project," says J.P. Anand, MP from Saptari, who chairs Parliament's foreign affairs committee.

Across the border in Bihar, political undercurrents are as heavy. Massive soil erosion upstream, silting and salination have rendered fertile lands barren in Saharsa, Purnea and Katihar. As the monsoon rains begin to lash the Himalayas, Kosi soon turns into a seasonal curse for Bihar.

The rancour may not diminish as long as Nepal and India insist on project-centric cooperation, says Ajaya Mani Dixit, editor of Water Nepal, a water resource development journal. "Both sides will pay a high political cost and their leadership will be increasingly alienated from the people, the supposed beneficiaries."

The Tanakpur row best exemplifies this. The issue has dominated almost all parliamentary sessions since former prime minister G.P. Koirala signed the accord in 1991 in New Delhi. Only the Mahakali ratification will legitimise the lease of the 2.9 hectares of Nepali land that India uses for the left afflux bund of the Tanakpur barrage. And no party wishes to be projected to the electorate as guilty of "selling out the rivers".

That defines the UML predicament. For a party that has made water nationalism a major poll plank, its appeal for time is understandable. For, if it commits itself to the treaty, its water politics is at peril. And it may even give a fillip to the beleaguered coalition, something the UML is desperately trying to avoid. But a veto means risking a backlash in Nepal and being perceived by India as "inflexible", something that can stall much of future bilateral cooperation.

Experts say the region should immediately begin consolidating its management of existing resources and stress on local capacity building. What is needed is education, observes Water Nepal, not horizon-shrinking propaganda reduced to self-serving slogans and trading charges. 

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