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A violent road to Lumbini

By C. Raja Mohan

SONAULI Dec. 24. On the border with Nepal at this small town in Uttar Pradesh, you are only a few kilometres away from Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama, the Buddha, in the ancient kingdom of Kapilavatsu. Buddha's teachings on dharma and non-violence have little resonance in this crime-infested land.

The Maoist movement of Nepal, one of the most violent insurgencies the subcontinent has ever known, is no longer confined to the remote hills of the country. It now has a formidable presence in the Terai, a fluid zone through which runs the border between India and Nepal.

Besides the growing influence of the Maoists that threatens both countries, there is also concern about the spread of Islamic extremism in the region amidst a proliferation of madrassas along and across the border. Trans-border mafias linked to politicians on both sides shelter criminals. Drug trafficking is rampant.

Economic policies designed at the national level in the two capitals create price differentials across a notional borderline and induce smuggling. India's agricultural subsidies make fertiliser cheap. It is inevitable that urea will be carried across to Nepal where it is costlier. This is only an example.

Proscribing natural economic exchanges in a geographically coherent region like the Terai is impossible. With low economic growth and high unemployment, smuggling has become the only enterprise here. It finds allies among criminals, politicians and extremist groups of all hues.

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While the Indian state is waking up to the explosive conditions on the border with Nepal, its ability to effectively intervene in the short run is hampered by the pathetic conditions of its security infrastructure in the region.

That the Indian state is withering away is reflected in the fact that you have to hunt for the immigration check post at Sonauli. Tucked away in the middle of a bustling market place, a handful of bored policemen reluctantly exercise the authority of the Indian state at a sensitive border.

The crisis is deeper. The security forces of the Uttar Pradesh Government are so poorly equipped that it would be a miracle, if they can do anything at all against the powerful crime syndicates that control the border.

For Indian policing to be effective, New Delhi needs to start offering the very basics — from improved living conditions for the security forces to more telephones and vehicles to modern surveillance equipment. Today, the criminals across the border are more mobile and better equipped than the law and order agencies on either side.

A young police officer from U.P. says "time is running out" for India to get a grip on the border with Nepal. Failure to act now, he says, will demand a lot more economic resources and political energy in the future.

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India has begun to deploy its Central security forces on the border with Nepal. But even the best of forces cannot do much here, unless they are mobile. Most of the roads on the Indian side are in awful shape. In some places it could take nearly six hours to drive less than 50 km.The roads on the Indian side run north-south across the border, which flows east-west. If these roads are in a mess, there are none at all along the border. Indian troops deployed along the 1800 km-long border will not be effective unless they can move rapidly along the east-west axis. India's immediate task is to build a network of roads in the vast region bordering Nepal.

The plains of Terai that India and Nepal share are an ethnic and geographic continuum that cannot be separated by fences. What the region needs is intensive cooperation at all levels between the two security establishments and a common strategy for faster and sustainable growth.The problem has less to do with the open character of the border than with the collapse of governance and development on the Indian side. All across the border, the towns on the Indian side are in a much poorer shape than their counterparts in Nepal.

Some would say nothing less than a Marshall plan (the massive package of American assistance to Europe after the Second World War) would be able to transform the conditions on the Indo-Nepal border.

The Central Government has sanctioned more funds for border security and development. Some analysts caution against throwing money at the problem. In the short run, those resources could flow into the hands of the very forces that the State is fighting — the mafias and the Maoists.

The first step towards improving the security conditions on the border must be upgradation of the communication infrastructure. "Connectivity is the first order of business," observers here say. Once there is better infrastructure and effective policing, policy options on long-term integrated development of the border region could open up.

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