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Settling border disputes with Nepal and Bangladesh

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 10, 2014

    The new government’s policy of greater engagement and cooperation with India’s immediate neighbours can pave the way for solving some of the vexed boundary disputes straining bilateral relations. While border disputes with China and Pakistan would be difficult to resolve in immediate future given the intense rivalry and huge territorial claims, borders disputes with Nepal and Bangladesh can be settled amicably in the coming years as the disputes are positional in nature, i.e. relating to the alignment of the boundaries and frameworks for their settlement have already been agreed upon. What remains to be done is translating them from the sheets of paper and implementing them on the ground.

    A beginning towards this object has already being made in July 2014 when India and Nepal agreed to address all their border related issues through a bilateral mechanism. For this purposes, they decided to constitute a Boundary Working Group (BWG) which would devise technical frameworks for resolving the contentious boundary issues including disputes over Kalapani and Susta. The BWG comprising Surveyors General of India and Nepal held its first meeting between 17th and 19th September 2014. During the meeting, two subordinate bodies – the Survey Officials` Committee and the Field Survey Team were established and their Terms of Reference (ToR) were finalised. The main tasks of the Committee would include construction and restoration of new and damaged boundary pillars, their GPS observation, developing procedures for resolving encroachments as well as crossholdings along the boundary, and providing technical inputs to the foreign secretaries of India and Nepal for resolving outstanding boundary issues.

    As the first step, the survey team will locate and identify missing pillars along the border and construct new pillars. According to the Nepalese government estimates, of the 8000 boundary pillars along the border, 1,240 pillars are missing, 2,500 require restoration and 400 more need to be constructed. The team will conduct survey of the border pillars based on the strip maps prepared by the Joint Technical Level Nepal-India Boundary Committee (JTLNIBC). The JTLNIBC was set up in 1981 to demarcate the India-Nepal border and after years of surveying, deliberations and extensions, the Committee had delineated 98 per cent of the India-Nepal boundary, excluding Kalapani and Susta, on 182 strip maps which was finally submitted in 2007 for ratification by both the countries. Unfortunately neither country ratified the maps. Nepal maintained that it cannot ratify the maps without the resolution of outstanding boundary disputes, i.e. Kalapani and Susta. India, on the other hand, awaited Nepal’s ratification while at the same time urging it to endorse the maps as a confidence building measure for solving the Kalapani and Susta disputes. In absence of a ratification, the process of demarcating the India-Nepal boundary could not be undertaken.

    The decision to undertake the survey of the border based on the strip maps is, therefore, a positive step. It demonstrates that both India and Nepal have shown flexibility in their earlier stands. While India has agreed to discuss the Kalapani and Susta disputes as part of a comprehensive plan to resolve all border disputes, Nepal has given tacit consent to demarcate the boundary according to the strip maps. Demarcation of the India-Nepal boundary is an urgent need because absence of border pillars has left large stretches of the boundary undefined resulting in numerous cross holdings and increasing encroachments of no man’s land along the border. While some of the boundary pillars are missing because of damage and destruction caused due to lack of maintenance or natural calamities, most often than not the pillars are found to be missing because of their removal by local residents with the objective to encroach upon no-man’s land. Such encroachments have often led to violent clashes between the local populations causing frequent tensions between the two countries. The need of the hour is therefore to complete the demarcation of the India-Nepal boundary at the earliest so that tensions caused due to an ill-defined boundary can be prevented. Recognising the urgency, the BWG meeting has finalized a three year tentative programme for field works along with an agreement that the Survey Officials’ Committee would meet before December 2014. It is hoped that the joint survey teams of India and Nepal will sustain the momentum and complete the task within the stipulated period.

    Similarly, the India-Bangladesh boundary has been completely delineated on the map. The work for settling the entire boundary had started after the constitution of the India-Bangladesh Joint Working Groups (JWG) I and II in June 2001. While JWG I dealt with the issue of delineating the 6.1 km of undemarcated stretch, JWG II concentrated on devising a framework for settling the issue of exchange of 162 enclaves and surrender of approximately 6000 acres of adverse possessions between the two countries. Unfortunately, strained bilateral relations did not permit the Group to make much headway in the initial years, but the situation improved after a change in the political dispensation in Bangladesh. In 2007, India and Bangladesh conducted a joint survey of all the enclaves and adverse possessions. Subsequently, in July 2011, a joint Census was conducted in the enclaves to ascertain the number of population. Meanwhile, modalities for the surrender of adverse possessions and alignment of the undemarcated stretch were carried out and the entire boundary was delineated on strip maps.

    Subsequently, in September 2011 additional protocol to the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) concerning the demarcation of land boundary between India and Bangladesh was signed and in February 2013, the strip maps of the boundary were exchanged during the second meeting of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Commission in Dhaka. Unfortunately all efforts to arrive at a final resolution of the boundary dispute came to a naught as India failed to ratify the LBA. Efforts to ratify the LBA had been undertaken when the previous government introduced the 119th Constitutional Amendment Bill on May 7, 2013. The Bill, however, could not be passed due to oppositions from members of the Asom Gana Parishad and the Trinamool Congress. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which had earlier agreed to support the Bill had to back down under pressure from its state units.

    It appears that the onus of settling the borders disputes with Nepal and Bangladesh now lies with India. To Nepal, India has given a commitment that it would discuss the issues of Kalapani and Susta with Nepal and would endeavour to find a solution. Given the complex nature of the disputes, both India and Nepal has to arrive at a political solution to the problem. In this respect, India has its work cut out. As regards Bangladesh, now that the Modi government, backed by an absolute majority, has proclaimed that greater cooperation with neighbouring countries is its priority, it should understand the importance of well settled international borders and ratify the LBA. Forty years is too long a time to stall the implementation of an agreement which was designed to bring peace and bonhomie between the countries. It is time India delivers on its promise.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India