Nepalese Villagers Worry Over New Water Accord With India

By , Liberation

SURAJ THAKUR still remembers the days when the Bagmati river would flood Gaur, causing the racks in his little watch-repair shop to float away.

"We would rush out, stuffing as many watches as we could in plastic bags, looking for safety on rooftops," Mr. Thakur recalls. "For days we would stay put like that."

Gaur has been safe for the last two years, thanks to diminished rainfall and a nearby embankment built by the Chinese with international-aid funds. But the residents of this poverty-stricken area still blame the floods on a dam built about 10 years ago to protect neighboring India from flooding on its side of the border.

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Today a new water accord between Nepal and India has the villagers worried again. In December, Nepalese Prime Minister Giriga Prasad Koirala and his Indian counterpart, P. V. Narasimha Rao, came to an "understanding" over harnessing the waters of the Himalayan rivers that flow through both countries. Nepalese newspapers and the opposition have charged the government with selling out to India.

"We have nothing against Indians. All we are concerned about is our safety," says Gaur resident Binod Kumar Singh. Mr. Singh says the concern is caused by reports that the Chinese firms now building embankments - firms whose work the Nepalese trust - will be replaced by corrupt Indian contractors.

Nepalese opposition groups have been quick to capitalize on the distrust toward India. The thorniest issue is the Tanakpur Dam, a hydroelectric project on the border along the Mahakali River.

The project is expected to improve the economic and social environment on both sides of the border. But the Nepalese opposition takes umbrage at the unequal sharing of water and electricity between the two countries. And it accuses India of violating Nepal's territorial integrity by erecting unauthorized flood barriers in Nepalese territory. India says that part of the river bank was given to it in a 1920 agreement between Britain and Nepal.

The Nepalese government defends the project: "We have given the land to India, but we have not surrendered our sovereignty," says Tarini Datt Chataut, chief parliamentary whip of the Nepalese Congress Party. Mr. Chataut adds that without the flood barriers built by the Indians, large tracts of Nepalese land would have flooded and required government aid.

This has not prevented a special parliamentary inquiry into the accord, and the Nepalese Supreme Court is reviewing whether it is a "treaty," which, under the Constitution, would require ratification by a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

This is only the latest round in 40 years of sparring between the two countries. Nepal was angered when India built flood embankments in the 1950s to protect itself, but which flooded Nepalese territory. Joint projects have been undertaken since, but Nepal has often complained of inequity, and India's efforts have often been hampered by the slow pace of work and poor construction by its contractors. When Nepal hired the Chinese to build upstream dams, India objected, saying they would divert too much wat er from its irrigation systems and power stations.

"How can India use our resources when it is not equally responsive in giving us facilities like navigation rights to and from Calcutta?" asks Hirandya Lal Shrestha, a Communist member of parliament and one of the bitterest critics of Mr. Koirala's recent accords with India.

"Why not declare the Ganges a regional river, an international river open for navigation, like the Rhine?" Mr. Shrestha asks. He says that past agreements have given Nepal only 10 percent of the electrical power and water while causing it more flood damage.

India, of course, has its own complaints about Nepal. The government of Bihar state has traditionally blamed the "rain god" and Nepal for its flooding.

A former Bihar chief minister blamed Nepal for forbidding installation of Indian flood-warning devices; Indian engineers and environmentalists cite Nepalese deforestation.

Today, relations between India and Nepal are far better than in years past, when trade and transit disputes caused a bilateral crisis. But budding democracy in Nepal has unleashed nationalist sentiments. And the nation possesses tremendous hydroelectric potential - 6,000 rivers and streams to power electricity plants.

Deepak Gyawali, noted engineer, economist, and author of "Water in Nepal," says that while India tries to determine its purchase price by doing detailed studies of the costs involved, Nepal seeks to maximize its profits by linking prices to the marginal costs of thermal power.

While politicians and intellectuals on both sides of the border quarrel, the ordinary people are waiting for a greater share of electricity and water for farming. "There is a lot of hope among my people. They are expecting floods to be controlled and if the joint projects are executed on time, more electricity and water," says Harkishore Singh, Indian member of Parliament from Sitamarhi, Bihar.

In Gaur, Nepal, the people ask for very little: contractors who will not be corrupt and who will do their job efficiently.

Ram Singh, a tea-shop owner, says: "We hope whatever happens, the joint projects will continue. At stake are the lives and property of very poor people."

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