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Interview

Nepal needs to ramp up air connectivity for economic development: Manjeev Singh Puri

Western influences increasing in Nepal over time
Pramod Jaiswal

Pramod Jaiswal

 |  Kathmandu

Manjeev Singh Puri is former Indian Ambassador to Nepal. He is a distinguished fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). He has also served as Ambassador of India to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg. Earlier he had served as Ambassador/ Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN during the time that India was on the Security Council. Ambassador Puri has also headed the division in the Ministry of External Affairs dealing with UN issues on the social and economic side and been involved as a lead member of the Indian delegation at numerous global negotiations on climate change, sustainable development, migration, human rights and UN reforms.

In addition, he has served twice in Germany (in Bonn and Berlin), in Cape Town, Muscat, Bangkok and Caracas. Major areas of his experience and professional focus relate to the environment, particularly climate change and sustainable development. He was a lead negotiator for India at the UN on issues relating to the post 2015 development agenda, Sustainable Development Goals and at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012. He was a key member of India's delegation at various Climate Change negotiations, including the Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC in Copenhagen in December 2009 and before that at Montreal, Bali, Bonn and Poznan. Furthermore, he was involved with India's participation in the G8-G5 Summits from 2005 and was the point-person for the Major Economies Forum. Nepalkhabar talked to former Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri. Excerpts:

How is your retirement life and how have you kept yourself busy after your tenure with the Indian foreign service?
I came back to Delhi at the beginning of 2020 and within two months we had lock down that lasted nearly two years. But what have I done in the meanwhile is that I have moved away from a lot of issues that were engaging me professionally.

I’m a distinguished fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), which is India’s premier think tank dealing with energy, with the environment climate change, and sustainable development issues. I have been involved with them for a long time, even while I served the Indian Foreign Service. I’m also involved with two other major think tanks dealing with foreign policy in India, the Ananta Center and the Gateway House based in Mumbai. I'm also fairly actively involved in the financial side of the Indian private sector.

I am also active in local institutions related to my background, religion, and likes. There is a great deal of activity in India, a country that is constantly evolving, and there is a great need for people who are prepared to participate and are willing to share their ideas and perspectives. I'm feeling incredibly content and pleased. Nepal provided my wife and I with a wonderful opportunity to see a beautiful society, a beautiful nation, and a wonderful setting where we formed connections that have endured and people have continued to contact us. We have kept in touch and feel very privileged.

Where was your first international visit, and when was your first visit to Nepal? What was your perception of Nepal then and later as an ambassador of India to Nepal?
I first moved to Nepal. Things in India have changed significantly. Back then, senior Cambridge high school examinations were held in December, and India's university admissions process started only in the summer, in June and July. Therefore, there existed a six-month period for each of us that was essentially free. Two of us who were friends, graduated from school the same year as I did in December 1975, decided do something different from what we had done earlier as school-age children. And we decided to take a trip to Nepal.

Nepal was our choice for one simple reason - no passport was required of us as we were without a passport. We were kids from the middle class, and we didn't even have a lot of money. Even the flight from Patna to Kathmandu was beyond our means to afford. But after giving it some thought, we responded, “Look, we can board a train. We will ride-share to get there. Let’s watch what transpires’’. We had some contacts in Patna and some relatives living in Kathmandu. We thought we would rough it out! Nepal sounded fascinating, unique, and intriguing from what little we had heard about it. There were things available that were not available to us in India. Therefore, the two of us set up with the meagre sum that we borrowed from our parents, around 500 rupees, even it was done with tremendous difficulty.

From Delhi to Patna, we rode the train. When we finally reached Patna, we had no idea how to go to Nepal. After being directed there by someone, we boarded a train for Hajipur and continued to Raxaul, which was on the other side of the border. Then came the idea that perhaps we could ride in one of these trucks. Fortunately, we were able to hitchhike to Kathmandu the entire way. That was my first encounter with Nepal, around 40 years ago, two of us riding our way and staying in the house of the Indian Cooperation Mission's head, who was well-known to our family. We were incredibly grateful for their kindness in accommodating us. For four or five days we were there, we most cherished hiring bicycles and cycling around the Hanuman Dhoka Complex while savoring condensed milk, a treat in India. Condensed milk used to be produced in India by the large corporation Nestle, which was costly. A brand of condensed milk known as Panda used to be imported to Nepal from China and was reasonably cheap.  That was the greatest luxury for us. What a wonderful time we had, and wonderful memories we have of the central Kathmandu area—the clear air, beautiful buildings, and so many good things. When we returned, we bought a pair of jeans and some pens. It was my first time traveling to Nepal.

After that, I went to Nepal as a member of Prime Minister IK Gujral's delegation as a Foreign Service official. That was an official visit. I went there twice. Everything was well taken care of and extremely well prepared. Then I went as the Ambassador.

When we were flying from Delhi my wife and I looked across from the aircraft window and we saw the sprawling urbanization of Kathmandu. The two of us looked at each other and said, “Oh wow, this looks like just one of those big urban agglomeration areas around Delhi.” We believed we were travelling to a beautiful city with clean air, mountains surrounding it, and other natural features like vegetation. I got to be heard of a place that is just like where we have come in terms of pollution, high urban density, etc. We were clueless about how Kathmandu had tremendously changed.

The biggest takeaway from spending three years in Kathmandu was how much Nepal and Kathmandu had changed. Many Indians, in my opinion, may be aware of Nepal physically, but they may not understand what it means for Nepali people, their way of thinking, or indeed Nepal itself.

You published an interesting and important book -Sikh Heritage of Nepal, which was released by the former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. Can you please share about the book and your experience working on it? What is the contribution of Sikh Community to Nepal?
The book was launched in Kathmandu, and the governor of the Nepal Rastra Bank launched the book. When we came to India, we had its launch by the Union Minister for Housing in India, Sri Hardeep Singh Puri. Thereafter, we went to Chandigarh, where the Chief Minister of Punjab was there at a launch ceremony. When I retired and returned to Delhi, we had a function at the India International Center, not on the book, but on the Sikh connect of India and Nepal. And, of course, the book was an element of that, and Dr. Manmohan Singh kindly agreed to preside over their launch.

I spent nearly 40 years of my life in the Indian Foreign Service joining in 1982 till when I retired, was putting India to the forefront, my professional requirements to the forefront and so on. It is very rare that you get an opportunity to be able to mix both professional and personal, let me say your interest, and bring them to the whole while pursuing your professional require, but that's exactly what happened in the year 2019.

The Government of India decided that they would celebrate 550 years of Guru Nanak's birth in a big way. The Prime Minister of India, made this into a national mission in a sense all Indian embassies became hugely involved. I as a Sikh, it was obviously a matter of great interest to me and a great pride that this was happening, and I looked around to see what could we do sitting in Nepal which would have a Nepali angle to the whole thing.

The first Indian Ambassador who went to Kathmandu in 1947 was a turban wearing Sikh Sardar Surjit Singh Majithia, who came from a very well-connected political family in Punjab. After this, after being Ambassador in Kathmandu, he became Deputy Minister for Defense and so on held high positions. There has been no Sikh Ambassador in Nepal from 1947 right up to 2017 when I went. I was the second turban Sikh Ambassador. It is also my good fortune that in a confluence which can only be said to be determined somewhere else, the Indian Embassy in Nepal during my times had five Sikh officers. In our scriptures, 5 is a very sacred number because it was five people who were baptized to become Sikh by Guru Gobind Singh. So, what an opportunity for me and my colleagues to be able to put their professional along with their personal and take it to the point.

The starting point was the beautiful and wonderful Sikh community in Kathmandu and in other parts of Nepal. We found that these people had really contributed in building relations of India and Nepal. Transporting the critical link, they had been involved with the building of the transport infrastructure in Nepal. From the early 1950, driving buses and trucks, they built a thriving business. We had a beautiful gruudwara in Kathmandu, Birgunj, Nepalgunj and all over the places.

I went to Simikot which is the staging post for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra that goes over Hilsa and then crosses over close to Mount Kailash onto the Tibetan side from Nepal. When the helicopter landed, I saw a young Nepali policeman welcoming me and he was a Sikh. He was wearing a turban. I was completely amazed. And I spoke to him in Hindi and then in English and he replied to me in fluent Nepali and it took me a little while to understand that he was a Nepali. It then made me understand that in the area around Nepalgunj there was a Sikh community which traces its roots to about 100 to150 years back,  the time at the end of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh empire when Rani Jindan came to Nepal and stayed there for about 15 years and that this community perhaps were remnants of those but they maintained Sikh religion right throughout while being Nepali, speaking Nepali, being totally like any other Nepali in every way except that they wore their hair long, they maintained the gurdwara, and so on for me complete revelation. We then discovered Nanak Mart which was a Sikh Gurudwara temple. I don't know how to describe all this which is said to have been blessed by Guru Nanak.

When Prithvi Narayan Shah founded Nepal and the Nepali expansion of the Kingdom was taking place on the Western side, they reached all the way to Kangra and was only stopped by the Singh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Therefore, the first set of interactions took place there. The first Gurkhas which were recruited into the armies was in the Sikh army and then took part in Kabul, Afghanistan and so on. The British defeated the Sikhs and took over the Sikh Kingdom when the first war of independence in India took place in 1857. After that the reorganization of the Indian army saw a great deal of recruitment of both Sikhs and Gurkhas. These were in fact, among the bulwarks of the Indian army. So, these connects have gone on in various ways. In modern era, the cooperation has been extended by India. When I first visited Nepal, I stayed at the house of the head of the Indian Cooperation Mission. Whether it was in building of roads (in Nepal), or the first hydroelectric plants, of supply of electricity, they have gone together. It's been a common endeavor and development for people over the last 75 years.  When I looked at all these and the role of the Sikhs, I found it amazing that this small community had links going back to Guru Nanak, the military, and think about this. The person who is credited with knowing where all the water pipes all over Kathmandu are, is somebody who is a Sikh engineer who came from Lucknow in the 1930s, settled in Kathmandu, his son thereafter took over as the chief water inspector or the water engineer from Kathmandu. So, it was absolutely fascinating and I must have done right in my life that the Lord almighty allowed me to get my professional and my personal together. And I can't but simply feel not just proud but very happy that one was able to document it because that is important as it took place is history. I'm happy that me and my colleagues in the embassy were able to contribute and I'm very privileged

 You served as the Ambassador of India to the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Nepal. What was your experience serving in all these countries?
These are very different ball games. I was also Ambassador in Indian Permanent Mission to the United Nations when India was for the Security Council. The European Union (and Britain was part of it at that time) and India have largest economic relations. They are our largest investors, they used to be our largest trading partners among our largest trading partners. Most of the things which are determined in the Indian economy, the standards get set in Europe so it's a massive relationship spanning all forms of economic. The European Union was a binding force because those countries have themselves taken the view of being able to integrate their national sovereignty, in terms of the European Union. The Euro was one of our most important elements of the Indian currency basket. So, it was a relationship and an ambassadorial assignment which was massive in scope.

For me it was very special because my father had been India’s Ambassador to the European Union. When I got the message that I was selected for the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) I was visiting him in Brussels. So, it was very fascinating to have sat on the same desk, to have lived in the same home, to have photographs in exactly the same form as my father, was very special.

And then Nepal. It is my considered view influenced by the fact that I served in that Nepal which has India's most special relationship. Nepal is the country with linked civilization, links at the level of people and open borders, make this into a not just unique, but absolutely different kind of relationship.

Politics in Nepal is as complicated as politics in India. Nepal is a democracy, a very vibrant democracy where interchange and interplay among political parties, play all of those put forward to your end. Nepal’s two-third of its trade takes place with India. Similarly, we from India have a number of sets of issues in terms of what Nepal’s external trade allows in terms of seepage into the Indian economy. Nepal and India share long open border but Nepal on the other hand also shares a land border with China. The India China contestation is no secret and what the interplay takes place in terms of Nepal is also obvious and easily understood by anyone. I don't have to explain the overall things that the Indian Ambassador in Nepal has to deal with.

Until 1990, when passports were rare, Nepalis going overseas were limited. After 1990, almost 25 percent of the population of Nepal is overseas and in India, they are doing phenomenally. Nepal is one of the leading countries in terms of remittances to GDP ratio. Everybody is equipped with smartphones in Nepal, it is not because they can afford it or anything, but because they need it as their family members or close relatives are overseas and they need to interact and keep connected.

The change in Nepal that we have seen is that the influences of the West have been increasing. The number of NGOs in Nepal is among the largest anywhere in Asia. Today the westerners coming to Nepal are not limited to climbing mountains or enjoying themselves in Thamel but beyond these. The number of faith houses is increasing in Nepal which might force assimilation to change Nepal. I wrote an article after I came back for the Hindu newspaper in India and the title was from Banaras to Bengaluru. The history of India-Nepal relations is of course at the level of the people but the level of polity and philosophy perhaps was centered in Banaras where Nepali Congress was bought and Communist Party was born. The relationship is not just grounded in antiquity and the scriptures and the pandas [priest] from Varanasi and Banaras going to Nepal etc., but also the home of politics in Nepal. However, today’s situation is different. There was a flight started by us with great difficulty from Kathmandu to Banaras, but I don’t think it operates anymore. The most lucrative sector of Nepal Airlines flights is the one that goes from Kathmandu to Bengaluru, Bangalore in India where Nepal has a nice little community of young people working in the tech industries then. Moreover, Nepalis are also starring in Indian films and all these changes are taking place. Nepal is globalizing and benefiting from globalization and from India.  India’s economy is growing and India becoming part of the globalized world which is the single biggest change I thought neatly summarized in from Banaras to Bengaluru. 

What are the different places that you have visited in Nepal during your stay as Ambassador? If you have to remember one most amazing place in Nepal what would it be?
I had the privilege of going from the West to the East. Unfortunately, I couldn't go to Pathibhara because we had that very tragic accident in which the Minister of Tourism [of Nepal] passed away and I was very shaken. But I went to Simikot and Hilsa of Nepal.  We’ve traveled from Doti, Dadeldhura (Deuba constituency) all the way to Far East of Nepal. Traveled to the southern borders of Jhapa by road and every single part has been beautiful, wonderful in every way. Whether it's Chitwan National Park or Simikot. I also had the fortune of going to Muktinath. I had the fortune of going to Everest Base Camp. I believe one of my most beautiful and cherished photographs is of being in a Yoga Asan pose, on the foothills of Mount Everest. So, for me, Nepal is extraordinary. It abounds. It's everything. It's all over the place. And it's been such a beautiful and wonderful experience. I thoroughly enjoyed Kathmandu. So, thank you very much Nepal.

Nepal has a diverse set of cuisine in all the regions. How was your experience with Nepali Cuisine? Did you have any problems with your food habits while traveling to different parts of Nepal?
I come from India. I've been very comfortable with it. Wherever I went I got rice, chapati, I got everything. There are two things about Nepali cuisine and one thing in particular which we in India perhaps need to know. You eat a lot of greens. Anywhere you go, any meal, there is some kind of ‘sag’ (green leaves) which is prepared. Very healthy, excellent and the fact that it's not deep fried, it's lightly salted and brought to the table and with every meal that's something that we do not have and I believe was absolutely wonderful and excellent. Other than that, I enjoyed so many diversities in food, the red rice, the black rice, the different elements that keep the beautiful honeys from different part of Nepal, the fruits, etc. It was a great experience overall. Great experience in terms of meeting people, cuisines, falling down, falling out every single aspect wonderful.

 How can Nepal capitalize on the Tourism Industry for holistic economic development? What steps can Nepal take to attract pilgrimage tourists?
The year I was leaving you were preparing for Visit Nepal Year 2020 but it all fell apart because of COVID-19. I think Nepal has two things. It certainly has great mountains, the wonderful resorts, in all over Nepal.

First, Nepal needs to ramp up elements of its marketing and position it as a global tourist destination. But you also have to be careful. You can't have unlimited supply of tourist landing up in Nepal because not only will strain the infrastructure, it will have serious consequences to the development. The fragility of the Himalayas is a known factor. This is something that the government and people need to be conscious of. The Bhutanese are very conscious. They allow very few people in, but you have to take this call. Because the more the number of people you get, there might be economic benefits that come out of it but there are costs to be paid for it so this is really for the Nepalis to themselves decide how they wish to go about it.

If you are looking at increasing numbers, it is my considered belief that's quite apart from doing global action that you may wish to, please look at India which is your easiest source of getting people who are spenders. They are not low spenders they are high spenders. They will happily come to Nepal as it’s easy for them to come, as they need no passport. If you stretch your outreach to go beyond the metro cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore, but go to some Tier 2 cities you will be amazed at the number of people who can come, who can spend, who are happy to make this effort and come to Nepal. This is one aspect.

Second, the pilgrimage. We need to make better connectivity between India and Nepal. I mentioned to you that when I was a student there used to be flights to Patna from Kathmandu to Banaras and so on and now they seem to have all disappeared. Everything is in terms of large air connectivity between Kathmandu and Delhi, Kathmandu and Mumbai and so forth. We need to try and see what we can do to ramp up connectivity with many other parts of India.



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