Saturday, March 18, 2006

Conflicts In Cusecs

With India, China and the United States now separately pressing the urgency of political reconciliation to pull Nepal back from the precipice, Maila Baje thought he could finally exhale some exhilaration. Barely half a lung went into motion when an Indian newspaper headline beckoned: “Future conflicts might revolve around water.”
For someone who grew up knowing how water has been more of a curse to the kingdom, an apocryphal vision became inevitable. So one read on. It was utter disappointment.
The headline was taken from the tail-end of the third paragraph consisting of a single sentence attributed to a university professor. No background, context or perspective.
In Nepal’s national vocabulary, the word that almost always follows water is India.
Governments have been graded by the generosity with which they have surrendered Nepalese rivers to India.
The world’s largest democracy, for its part, was never interested in buying Nepal’s hydroelectricity. At least not for the exorbitant cost per unit.
In a sense, the Indians have a point. Power projects are costly in Nepal partly because of the topography. Toss in corruption and project delays arising from political posturing and costs can go skyrocketing.
Why pay World Bank-dictated prices when you can impose any price on that great vassal Bhutan?
To be sure, a little finesse might have brought in Indian investment with the attendant cost controls. Of course, getting the Indians to pay anything in such a scenario would be another challenge.
So geography continues dictate things. Liquid that could have fueled endless roaring turbines flow south with full freedom, leaving Nepalis with nothing to show for it. In their furious moments, Nepalis thought they could open the floodgates and inundate adjoining Indian states. In reality, it’s Nepali land that is submerged by the dams India regularly constructs.
Where matters seem a bit complicated, the Indians can cleverly use ruses. After parliament ratified the Mahakali Treaty in 1996, the then water resources minister exulted how the sun was going to rise from the west.
One comrade across the aisle suggested that Nepal could finally uplink all those megawatts to satellites and cater to the highest bidders.
The “Indian stooge” tag stuck on Girija Prasad Koirala and his Nepali Congress whereas the commies and royalists in parliament were more energetic backers of the Mahakali project.
The detailed project report was supposed to have been published within six months. A decade later, Nepalis haven’t received a trickle of information. Instead, they are enduring seven-hour blackouts a day and dry taps for most of the year.
Meanwhile, the hills of Uttar Pradesh state on the Nepal border became part of a separate Uttaranchal state. Inter-state rivalry provided New Delhi with the perfect excuse for inaction.
Nepal ended up virtually renouncing future claims to additional cusecs of water. For India, the ambitious river-linking project, conceived decades earlier, was ready for implementation.
To be fair, what might have happened if all our rivers flowed north? Get real, you might say. Amid such engineering feats as the rearranging of triple gorges, there is nothing that should stop our thirsty northern neighbors from prospecting our principal natural resource. The headline is scary, isn’t it?