By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
The border between Nepal and India is so open, smooth and easy to cross that it doesn’t even feel like an international border separating two countries that once fought under different rulers. There is not much difference between the landscapes, bazaars and people on the two sides of the border. There’s no language problem; Nepalis understand Hindi and many shop owners on the Indian side of the border speak fluent Nepali. For many Nepalis who travel to India for work or religious purposes, crossing into India is like going to offices or temples in Nepal. Tens of thousands of Nepalis and Indians cross the border each day to do business, get education and treatment, visit relatives and seek divine blessings.
That’s one version of the story. A feel-good version that epitomises the best of the relationship between Nepal and India. Unfortunately that’s not the only version of the Indo-Nepal border crossing story. That’s not the only truth. If you are poor, illiterate and badly dressed, crossing the border becomes a harrowing experience. The policemen on both sides of the border who are supposed to facilitate the crossing suddenly become a bunch of thugs who harass travellers and extort their hard earned money. The scene at some border crossing points at times is so horrific that you may want to compare them with rape.
The Banbasa (India)-Mahendranagar (Nepal) border crossing point is one of the busiest and probably the most notorious of the transit points between two countries. India has two separate checkpoints within the distance of about 100 metres. If you are entering Nepal your luggage will be searched by Indian policemen first. Then you are allowed to cross the bridge over the Mahakali River. The structure is actually the barrage (Indians call it Sarda barrage as a canal with the same name originates from here. The inequality in Indo-Nepal relationships is aptly reflected on the sizes of the canals that go towards respective countries from the Mahakali River. The canal on the Nepali side is about a tenth the size of the Sarda canal that flows into India.) Soon after crossing the bridge will come another checkpoint operated by Seema Surakshya Bal (SSB), India’s border security force along the border with Nepal. This controversial check post came into existence a few years ago almost overnight provoking much anger from the Nepali population.
The SSB has a mixed reputation among Nepalis; many believe the SSB represents the worst of Nepal-India relationships.
In a recent morning at this border crossing point, I saw hundreds of Nepalis lined up at both of these check points to get their belongings inspected by the Indian police and SSB. Soon the whisper spread among Nepalis at the police check point that the policemen were demanding IRs.20 from each person. But not everyone was asked. They didn’t ask me to pay and neither were two students who had come from Dehradun. But a few migrant workers told me that they were asked to pay IRs. 20 each so that they could take their luggage without further hassle.
At the SSB check point, too, not all were not asked to bribe, but those who had heavy luggage had to pay up to IRs. 100. The horse cart drivers acted as mediators between the SSB officers and their passengers. They collected money from passengers with lots of belongings and passed that to the SSB.
An official from the SSB check post came to the horse cart I was riding on. The driver, pointing to the two students seated next to me, said we didn’t have heavy luggage. “And at the back there are Indians,” he said.
“Don’t talk like this,” said the official. “We don’t differentiate between Indians and Nepalis. For us, everyone is equal.” The cart driver, an Indian, smiled apologetically.
I believe if such words are translated into deeds the situation at this border crossing point would improve vastly. It’s not the same case at other Indo-Nepal border crossing points. For example, Pashupatinagar (Ilam-Darjeeling) and Kakadvitta (Mechi bridge) in the East are more organised and peaceful. Indian policemen and officials are friendly. Of course, landing directly at New Delhi’s airport is a far more enjoyable experience as one doesn’t have to face harassing questions for carrying a laptop like my friend faced from both Indian and Nepali policemen at Banbasa-Mahendranagar border a few months ago.
Thousands of Nepalis cross the border at this point daily. The majority of these people are poverty-stricken migrant workers from the Far- and Mid West regions of Nepal. They go to Indian cities for low-paid and physically demanding jobs because their country doesn’t provide them any employment opportunities. Delhi, less than 400 kilometres away from Mahendranagar, is more accessible to them than Kathmandu about 700 kilometres away.
The infrastructure on the Indian side is much better compared to that on the Nepali side. That is why people of western Baitadi and Darchula districts still prefer to travel from the Indian side to reach Mahendranagar. Roads are better and travelling on them is cheaper.
In the past decade or so a lot of road has been constructed (though the work hasn’t been completed) in the region which has definitely eased daily life, but the pace of development is frustratingly slow. Politicians in Kathmandu are busy in a power struggle. “We have had two prime ministers from this region,” said a man from Baitadi who was travelling back to his home from neighbouring Dadeldhura last week. “Lokendra Bahadur Chand from Baitadi and Sher Bahadur Deuba from Dadeldhura. We have many government officials from Baitadi. But look at this place. Look at the people. Still backward and destitute.”
We also talked about the border crossing experience of which he was familiar. “It’s terrible,” he said. “It’s humiliating. But why blame Indians when our own leaders have humiliated us and let us down?”
[This article first appeared in yesterday’s Kathmandu Post]