Recently, on my way to Kathmandu from Bagdogra airport in Siliguri, India, immigration officials there pointed out that Nepali nationals need not fill out travel forms. An immigration officer told me that hopefully, in the future, there would be no need to stamp passports as well. It made me feel as though free travel as in the EU would soon be a reality in South Asia. Then I wondered why there are so many politicians on either side of the border who do not want this to happen—to ensure they have a political agenda to drive their rhetoric. I keep pondering on why we cannot rethink of the region sans political boundaries as I sip coffee in Café Fiction in Gangtok or Ambient Café or Karma Café in Thimpu or Himalayan Java in Kathmandu. And that perhaps represents the unison in Himalayan tastes and thoughts.
Room to connect
For South Asians, travelling within the region freely, without any hassles, still remains a far cry primarily, due to existent tensions between India and Pakistan. But it can definitely be made easier. Nepal, for instance, has pioneered the concept of no visa requirement for Saarc member states while Bhutan allows Bangladeshis and Indians visa free entry. The time has come to redefine geographical and economic boundaries. Free movement can be experimented within East South Asia and that can change the economic fates of many parts of the region. For instance, Sikkim, a very clean and organised tourist destination in Northeast India, tries to woo tourists from far away regions in Western India while treating Nepali tourists with suspicion. If they can ensure better hospitality, then the 10 million population in Eastern Nepal can be the best target destination for Sikkim. Similarly, Bhutan will, at some point of time, revisit the tourism mix to boost tourism revenue. If high-end tourism in Bhutan is to succeed, then it needs to ensure that it does not get cluttered by low-end tourists like in Nepal. But that can be brought about by destination management rather than regulations. For instance, in Europe there are many destinations that have been able to keep their tourist earnings high while opening it up for all European nationals and others. Similarly, for Nepal, it is important to see that a prospective market for Western Himalayas can be the over 100 million people who live within a driving distance of three hours across the border.
Prime Minister Modi chose the two Himalayan countries of Bhutan and Nepal for visits before embarking upon his world travels. This has great significance as it is very evident in his words and deeds that if India’s future is to be secure, Northeastern India has to be brought into the nation’s mainstream. This is not possible without bringing about a change in India’s relationship with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
Two hundred years ago, it was possible for India to trade with Tibet and Myanmar due to different geographical boundaries and because the center of power of the British eastern empire was in Kolkata and not in Delhi. It is now essential to revisit the sub-region and figure out what is possible and what is not. If India can benefit by reaching out to its Northeast through Bangladesh, so be it. The advent of technology has made security costs cheaper. A smart card to track the movement of people would ensure there is free movement. And at the same time, movement can also be monitored in the national interest of all sovereign states. In Nepal, apart from less than a percentage of people who tamper with their passports, the document is directly linked with the livelihood of most. People in border towns are not going to tamper government issued cards that are essential for their movement just to smuggle in a jerrycan of petrol or a bag of rice. Movement for tourism and movement for work can be distinguished. And if movement can be controlled, why cannot people work in different geographies legally rather than illegally, the way it is currently happening.
When Saarc was established 30 years ago, there was euphoria in redefining the future of the South Asian countries. History has again provided the region with an opportunity to redefine the relationship between its member nations and to unleash the true potential of the Himalayan region. We have a leadership in India that is willing to welcome new perspectives and wear new and different pairs of lenses to look at the region. We have the Chinese talking about a Trans-Himalayan Economic Growth Region. Old Silk routes are being revisited as new ones are being carved. Bhutan is looking at new ways to engage with the region. The Northeast of India is rethinking of reconnecting with mainland India and Myanmar. Bangladesh has been able to maintain its momentum of economic growth despite its politics. Initiatives like the Himalayan Consensus are also bringing in discourses that will redefine the future of sustainable development. More scholars are keen to look at this region than ever before. Europe put behind two horrific wars to chart out a better future for the next generation. The time has come to shape the future of the Himalayan region and what better time than now to do that.