When Manjeev Singh Puri took up his assignment as Indian Ambassador to Nepal in 2017, Kathmandu’s relationship with New Delhi was passing through rough waters. One of the daunting challenges before Puri was to restore and normalise the time-tested relationship between Nepal and India so that both countries continued to reap mutual benefits. Ambassador Puri did precisely that without being too visible. About three years later, inspiring developments have taken place in the Nepal-India partnership. As he wraps up his Nepal stay, Prakash Rimal and Roshan S Nepal of The Himalayan Times caught up with Ambassador Puri. “I am happy that actually in my time here in Nepal, we have progressed on real things,” he said during an hour-long interview. Excerpts:
Shall we begin with your experience as India’s Ambassador to Nepal?
It is only in Nepal that this could have happened, that I had the opportunity to be able to actualise both myself and my profession. Profession, yes, I could have had the opportunity in any other country. But, perhaps, Nepal is the only place which allowed me, as a Sikh, to be able to actualise myself. And this is the uniqueness of Nepal and India, and our relations at the level of people. We are marking 550 years or Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. And it had to be that in Nepal we discovered his footsteps. We hope we will be able to take this ahead. And then we were able to discover societal connections between Sikhs and people of Nepal, not of the last 20-30 years, but over the last 150 years.
There’s a small Sikh community which is Nepali. And the reciprocation of your government and its understanding, issuing commemorative coins, legal tender, could happen only in Nepal. And that’s why I say this can only be an assignment that I will always cherish, remember, treasure because it allowed actualisation of both myself and my profession. Thank you very much, Nepal.
How have things changed vis-à-vis Nepal-India relations during your tenure?
I am very happy about one or two things particularly. We have been able to significantly take forward India-Nepal partnership. For many years the area of hydropower was kind of stuck in discussions. The two prime ministers laid the foundation stone of Arun III project, and the project is under construction. To me, this is a significant move to actually unleash the potential of Nepal in its economy, and India and Nepal in its partnership. The oil pipeline was under discussion for a long time. We started its construction in April 2018, and completed the project some eight or nine months ahead of schedule. I felt very happy on the day of the joint inauguration, which was done remotely, when Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli announced that there would be a two-rupee reduction at the pump for everyone. The idea of partnership is mutual benefit, and here you see it happening straight away at the grassroots level. Integrated check post projects have come forward. So I am happy that actually in my time here in Nepal, we have progressed on real things.
I am happy that during my stay here, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi came twice to Nepal. He was accorded a huge welcome in Janakpur. Prime Minister Oli was himself there at Janaki Mandir, followed by the functions here in Kathmandu. And then Prime Minister Modi went to Muktinath. It has brought about different types of openings in the very old relations but we are making them relevant in the contemporary world and taking things forward. Prime Minister Oli went to India twice. The first was a state visit and it was very fruitful and complete. It saw the inauguration of the pipeline, the start of the construction of the pipeline, the inauguration of the integrated check posts and three major ideas, namely, the inland waterways linkage, the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway line, and development of agriculture.
The second time was for inauguration and swearing in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi. It was a short visit. I look at all of this and I have a sense of satisfaction that during my time here in Kathmandu things have really improved.
One other dimension, which is truly a people’s dimension, is the huge development of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Nepal. The routes via Nepal are the easiest — whether through Simikot-Hilsha, or through Rasuwagadi or even direct flights from here. The route from Simikot and Hilsha are hugely through Nepal, and are of mutual benefit to both sides. So I was happy to see, for example, Nepalgunj being able to harness the business opportunity. I have been to Simikot three or four times. And every time I’ve gone there, I am struck by the changing development landscape there. For example, when we went there the first time, there were hardly a few guest houses, and now they say there are homestays that can accommodate 400 people. Look at the changes that are happening, and changes taking place directly at the level of the people. So I have a sense of satisfaction.
Any noteworthy achievements that Nepal has made in the past couple of years?
I came here in 2017. It was a historic year for Nepal. You carried out three tiers of elections — smooth, quite friendly elections, barring one or two incidents, and carried out within a fairly tight schedule of a year. Indeed, provinces got formed, and there were assemblies elected for the first time in the history of Nepal. A much smaller Parliament than the Constituent Assembly got created. So I would suppose that Nepal also was in a sense celebrating multi-party democracy. India is a multi-party democracy. The celebration of multi-party democracy is always such a nice thing. Time was propitious; it went well; win-win possible; and I hope that we built on these.
The road ahead?
Both India and Nepal are developing countries. Yes, India is a nearly three-trillion-dollar economy. But you know you have set for yourself the target of becoming a middle income country in just 10 years. It’s a tall order. Prosperity and happiness are integral to what you want to achieve. We want to grow economically, we want to have better life for our people, this is something that fits completely with what we are doing in India for ourselves — a better quality of life for our people and ensuring that no one’s left behind and life improves for everyone. Of course, for that the cake has to enlarge.
Border management has been a complex issue. What could be the way ahead?
We are two countries, civilizations, peoples with such a long open border. And we have inherited this in legacy. There are many things which go in fact to time before these kinds of technologies came into being. There have been some interesting developments and we must take them forward. We have moved from older principles of water shared riverine geographical placements to fixed points and we did it. This is one of the most complex issues that can happen in border management and we did it. We did it as people, we did it as governments, and we did it as officials of governments. So we have the capability to do. And I believe we have the capacity and capability to address all these issues in a manner that there’s a kind of acceptance and satisfaction. We are a huge open border—1,800 km. People are going across. They have relationships and economic interests. They have societal links here and there. I have no doubt in my mind that each of these issues will be sorted out in a calm and normal manner.
How do you think will issues related to Kalapani, Susta and Limpiyadhura affect Nepal-India relations in the days to come?
I want to say something very clearly. There has been no change as far as India’s external boundary is concerned. You know that, I know that, we all know this. Now, sentiments are being expressed. We are listening to them. We know about them. Initiation of action for there to be some discussion has been initiated. And there will be actions on this particular thing. We are constantly having issues of very serious nature on, let’s say, trade, on issues of movement of goods and services. But we sat down and resolved them. There has to be certain kind of discussions but these particular discussions also require that you work in all of this in a manner to try and find a resolution. And we need to go about it looking at the facts, looking at the various things in the way they are. But as I mentioned to you, there has been no change in India’s external boundary. And I think we should be a little wary of giving opportunities to others to interplay in this. This is a legacy issue which has been long pending and it needs to be resolved amicably.
Indian Investment in Nepal used to be the largest, but has been on the decline lately?
Cumulatively, Indian investment in Nepal is by far the largest even in the last few years. In real inflows into Nepal, India has been No 1, absolutely no doubt about that. In fact, last year, about 45 per cent of all inward movement into Nepal was from India. When companies in India became slightly big, and had the ambition of travelling overseas, the first point that they wanted to establish themselves was in Nepal. And that is how you see so many of these things. Whether it’s the Daburs or the Tatas or anybody else, that’s how these things happened. I now find that the Indian corporates, when they grow up, they evaluate Nepal, but there is no automaticity in wanting to invest.
Foreign Direct Investment is a competitive business for everyone. India’s economy has opened to the world. We are allowing FDI flows virtually into every sector. This also allows our companies to invest overseas all over the world today. So today, the fact that you are our closest neighbour, the fact that we know each other very well, the fact that we have personal friendships, the fact that our economies are intertwined, play a role for Indian corporate decisions on FDI, but only up to that point. They have the world open. So you have to also ensure that you are a competitive market for FDI investments.
Talking about specific cases, I say there’s no investment to compete or compare with Arun III — the sheer size and volume of the investment. And even now, in every sector here, the players, the people interested, are invariably the people from India usually with their friends and their partners in Nepal. And very large number of players in Nepal have partners in India. The global economy is very competitive. We have seen India-Nepal trade grow, even in the last few years. And it is a matter of happiness that Nepal’s exports to India are rising. We encourage Indian companies to invest in Nepal, and Nepalese companies to invest in India.
How do Indian companies look at Nepal as a competitive market for FDI?
Indian companies are enjoying the benefits of a hugely growing market domestically. Secondly, gone are the days when there were constraints about going overseas as a result of foreign exchange availability. Today the world is a mobile place. They invest, whether they go to the Middle East, Singapore, Australia, the United States, European counties or China. Indian companies, in a sense, are coming of age. What this means is you have to sharpen your attractiveness for FDI. And I am happy that the government is working on some sectors. But you know this has to remain a very important element of engagement. Nepal’s market is not small and not hugely large either. By European standards, Nepal is a reasonably big country. But if one looks at the globe, one looks at the totality of the market, how it can be serviced, and you come to the conclusion that the Nepalese market has to work to make itself attractive for big Indian players to come. Now, big companies are investing here even in assembly of motorcycles, two-wheelers. An Indian company which is a global player in the area of animal vaccines has joined hands with a Nepali partner and set up a plant here to export animal vaccines not to India, but globally. It’s a fantastic success story.
How do we resolve non-tariff barriers and quarantine-related issues that crop up time and again?
We have to work to try and solve these things. One of the things that we, as two governments, have done is the integrated check posts. Once these integrated check posts come in, with their own facilities, quarantines, laboratory testing, we should be able to ease the flow of goods. Working through far more efficient, far more modern system, we should be able to do it. We are working on that. We are also working on things such as recognising each other’s laboratories. These are also things which need a certain amount of working on because you have to exchange and understand each other’s protocols, the scientific community and the technological community have to come on board, and so on and so forth. I am glad that we are working on that. I think integrated check post is a good idea. It should be able to smoothen the flow of goods by bringing everything under one roof. We have got one done at Birgunj-Raxaul and the other one is ready at Jogbani-Biratnagar. It should be inaugurated very soon. Next step, we go towards Nepalgunj, Bhairahawa. This will ease the flow of doing business. And I think it will do two things — it will benefit consumers and result in boosting trade.
Nepal needs to create jobs, and that requires investment. How do we go about it?
Nepal is a very important country for India, not only in terms of our societal interaction, but also in terms of our economic interaction. We are two societies and two economies intertwined with each other. Creating jobs is one of the most important things we are doing in India. In fact, working on job creation, we have worked very hard on skill development, on start-ups, on all kinds of sunrise things. All these experiences are there for Nepal to share.
Investments are private sector decisions. As far as government companies are concerned, I’ve already mentioned Arun III. If there are bigger projects, you ask me, I believe we can go ahead with Pancheswor. It will be a game-changing project as far as Nepal is concerned. When I say Nepal, I mean the Nepalese economy is concerned. I am not only talking in terms of hydroelectric power production, but, in terms of the Nepalese economy, it will be a game-changing project. We have vested interest in your prosperity.
Some thoughts that you may like to leave for Nepal and Nepalis as you wrap things up?
We are seeing generational change both in India and Nepal. Younger people are coming to the fore and we are seeing globalisation in both our countries — so a new India and a new Nepal. I believe that both these societies, economies and polities will be greatly benefited by enhancing cooperation. Now, we are a two-and-half-trillion economy going to five, there are some facets of this geography which are known to everybody. You know India best as compared to almost any other country in the world. Let us not forget the direction of geography. And the direction of geography for both India and Nepal is to be together and to work together.
It’s not for me to suggest or recommend anything to a sovereign country or the sovereign people. But as a friend if you ask me, Nepal should recognise its achievements. You are a great country. Work on democracy and harness the geography around you. Take advantage of it. It will bring about a sea change in the quality of life and the economic situation as far as Nepal is concerned. I am very happy that you’ve focused on prosperity and happiness and to become a middle-income country. For me, the suggestion that I would leave is the easiest and directionally the best geography for you is India. We should work together.
A version of this article appears in print on December 16, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.