In Kathmandu, my cabbie raises the volume of his car stereo. The song playing on the music system is an old Bollywood number from the 1990s. He hums along, clearly enjoying himself — oblivious to my presence. My trip to Nepal's capital city had just begun — I am here to present my work at an academic conference on South Asia and understand the perspective of the Nepali scholars on economic development in the region. It will be at least a week before I take a flight back home to Delhi.
I am coloured by my own prejudices to how people in Nepal perceive Indians, thanks to the negative coverage in the media of relations between the two countries. Nepal and India have traditionally shared a roti-beti relationship, but lately, the relations have nose-dived for multiple reasons.
A serious blow to the relations came during the blockade imposed by Madhesis in 2015 on India-Nepal border. These protests led to supply shortages in the country as Nepal is a landlocked country is dependent on India. Madhesis were seen as having an Indian backing while the cause of the protests was actually their marginalisation in the new constitution.
The rise of China and its increasing influence in South Asia has also come as an irritant in India-Nepal ties. In fact, the political leaders in Nepal have often issued statements pitting the two large neighbours against each other.
Hence, I am on my guard, and attentive to signs of anything Chinese as the media coverage has kept me informed about how Nepal is slowly slipping into a Chinese stronghold. A week is all it will take to wash away my prejudices.
The visit helps me notice how the people in Nepal are open and warm while meaning malice to none. There are bitter memories from the past, there are many complaints and there are also frivolous rebukes showered on India. But located miles away from the Indo-Nepal border, Indian appeal is still going strong in Kathmandu.
Nepal's Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi. (File Photo: Reuters)
The crucial tourism sector of the Nepalese economy accounting for 7.5 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a case in point. Newspapers were full of headlines in April when Chinese tourists overtook those from India for the first quarter of 2018. However, the situation on the ground is very different. Indians continue to visit Nepal in large numbers, with 2017 marked by 1,60,832 Indians tourists as against just 1,04,664 tourists from China.
While Indian tourists continue to visit Nepal all the year round for pilgrimage and business-related trips, Chinese have helped the tourism industry monetize the dead winter season with inflows during the Chinese New Year. A key difference that continues to mark the two sets of tourists is their ability to strike a chord with the local population. “China bahut aaya, medam. Unka bhasha, unka phood — kuch humko nahi samajhta” (Chinese tourists have come in great numbers, madam.
But we don’t understand their language and food habits), explains a local restaurant owner in the touristy area of Thamel. “Chinese are very guarded in their behaviour. They keep to themselves. Hardly interacting with the local population at all. They mean business. So, it is a very mechanical relationship that they share”, shares a local tour operator.
The television connected to the local sky network transmits signals from Chinese TV channels including those broadcasting from Tibet. It broadcasts Indian and Pakistani channels as well such as Set Max, Star Plus and ARY. But there are not many takers for TV channels in the Chinese languages.
People glued to their TV sets in Kathmandu are either watching Hindi soap-operas on Star Plus or listening to Nepali numbers on J Music. The language is a strong barrier that continues to hamper China’s soft appeal in South Asia. While the broadcast may serve the growing number of Chinese in these countries, the locals are clearly not watching.
Great wall of Chinese language: The Chinese television channels do not seem to have takers among the Nepalis (Photo: Monica Verma).
As a part of my research, I had to visit the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu. Flags of the eight South Asian countries dot the beautiful entrance of the building. Inside, a cooperative staff member helps me navigate through documents in their archive section.
Happy with the progress of my work, I leave for the day to check out other buildings in the vicinity. On one side, there is still hope in the South Asian dream, and on the other are examples of expanding business interests of the Chinese.
I spoke to businessmen in Nepal, especially in the construction sector. They are amazed by the speed at which Chinese operate. “It takes them a single month to construct an eight-storey building, madam!” remarks Ramkumar Puri, a real estate agent in Kathmandu.
They are also worried by the abnormal pace at which land — an important resource — is falling in the hands of the Chinese. “China has money and our leaders need that. This is the setting between them,” Puri tells me.
However, Sagar Ghimire — a journalist working with the Nepali newspaper Republica — clarifies that foreigners are prohibited by law from owning land in Nepal. "Chinese just undertake the construction as builders by bidding for contracts," he explains.
China is also trying to improve connectivity with Nepal by constructing Trans-Himalayan railway and roads. Recently, China granted transit rights to use its ports for third country trade to Nepal. This made headlines in India as well. Currently, Nepal being a landlocked country has access only to Indian ports like Kolkata and Vishakhapatnam.
However, a Madhesi cobbler sitting right outside the SAARC secretariat building refutes that China’s gesture would be of any consequence. “Hum toh khud kandhe par dho kar bojh la sakte hain India se, par China se bojha kaise dho ke laoge? Pahad aa jata hai beech mein, madam (We can carry goods from India on our shoulders. But how can we bring goods from China? There is a mountain-barrier in between),” he says.
To me, this man sounds wiser than the predictions made by our own media. I recall the buzz that this news created in India as a warning sign of China’s rising influence. However, Chinese ports are more than 3000 km away from Kathmandu. Indian ports are much closer — less than 800 kilometres away.
In commercial transactions, more distance means more cost. Hence, the agreement might end up as just a psychological relief without any practical value for the Nepali traders.
Insightful: The Madhesi cobbler in Kathmandu (Photo: Monica Verma).
With my trip to Kathmandu drawing to an end, my prejudices have been replaced by a sense of optimism. The spirit of India-Nepal ties is alive and kicking. All it needs is a credible partnership in economic development, and a sub-regional cooperation in the form of Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) initiative may be the answer.