Pesticides, or their presence in fruits and vegetables that Nepal imports from India, has become the latest issue to roil relations between the two neighbours. The Nepal government made it mandatory for all shipments of fruits and vegetables imported from India to undergo phytosanitary tests to determine the levels of pesticides in them from 18 June. But it lifted the restrictions late last week after India's intervention and pressure from Indian exporters and Nepali importers.
It is the intervention of the Indian embassy in Kathmandu to get the restrictions revoked that has riled many in Nepal. The suspected presence of high levels of pesticides in fresh-farm produce imported by Nepal from India has been an issue of grave concern for consumer and environment groups, citizens’ fora, politicians and many others in Nepal. A Cabinet decision on 17 June making it mandatory for all importers of fruits and vegetables to get their consignments tested for pesticides was thus welcomed by all.
However, due to lack of planning, adequate facilities to conduct tests and lack of trained manpower to conduct the tests at the border checkpoints (read this and this), the move led to chaos at the border crossings. Hundreds of trucks carrying fresh-farm produce were stuck for days, resulting in the consignments rotting and importers incurring huge losses. And prices of these commodities also skyrocketed due to the resultant shortfall in their supplies. About 40 per cent of Nepal’s requirements for fruits and vegetables is met by India.
But many lawmakers even within the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), and the opposition of course, have come down heavily on the revocation of the restrictions and have lambasted the government for succumbing to pressure from India. Consumer and environment groups and eminent citizens have also come down heavily on the Indian Embassy for intervening in the issue and being insensitive to the well-being of the citizens of Nepal.
“It seems India wants the people of Nepal to continue consuming poisonous and pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables it exports to Nepal. This is supreme insensitivity. India has no business to interfere and intervene in Nepal’s internal affairs, and the way it pressurised the Nepal government to revoke the ban was immoral and illegal,” said Sher Bahadur Neopani, a prominent environment activist and a respected figure in that country.
Nepal’s Agriculture Minister Chakrapani Khanal added to the disquiet by publicly stating that he or his ministry was not consulted. The ministry, he said, was kept in the dark when the restrictions on imports were imposed last month and also when they were lifted last week.
Khanal revealed it was the country’s Commerce Ministry which presented the proposal to revoke the restrictions to the Cabinet by keeping the Agriculture Ministry in the dark. Khanal also admitted that his ministry was ill-prepared to implement the restrictions. The minister said it would take a minimum of nine months and 4 billion Nepali Rupees (nearly 250 crore Indian Rupees) to put in place adequate testing facilities and manpower with technical expertise to carry out the required tests at the border customs checkpoints.
But popular anger towards the Nepal government’s lack of preparedness (read this) has, as often happens in Nepal, got misdirected towards India. “We agree that adequate infrastructure and manpower was not put in place to carry out swift testing of all imports, but that could not be reason enough for revocation of the restrictions. The restrictions were required for the welfare of the citizens of Nepal, to ensure that they consume healthy fruits and vegetables free of chemical contamination that has wreaked havoc on the health of our citizens,” said M K Gurung, a senior advocate and citizen’s rights activist.
He added: “there would have been hardships for the first few weeks and the shortage of imported fruits and vegetables would also have boosted domestic agriculture. But our government bowed before shameless lobbying by India, which only had in mind the commercial interests of Indian exporters and not the health and well-being of Nepal’s people while pushing for the lifting of restrictions.”
The government’s U-turn has also been flayed strongly on social media with tens of thousands of netizens criticising it. But here, too, most of the anger has been reserved for India, which has been portrayed as a bully trying to push poisonous and contaminated food down the throats of Nepalis.
Many lawmakers spoke on similar lines at the National Assembly on Sunday and flayed India for defeating an initiative that would have been beneficial to Nepalis. They urged the government to put in place the testing facilities at the border checkposts and also to boost farm productivity in the country to reduce dependence on Indian imports.
Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli has now assured the country’s parliamentarians that the necessary financial allocations for upgrading all testing laboratories at the 15 customs posts along the Indo-Nepalese border through which fruits and vegetables are imported into the country would be made very soon. He added that the equipment along with skilled technicians required to man the testing laboratories would be in place in a few months’ time and more stringent restrictions would then be imposed on food imports.
But India also needs to address the justifiable anger it has attracted in Nepal by openly pressurising the Nepal government to roll back measures that were essentially taken to protect the well-being of the people of the Himalayan country. One way could be to help Nepal with grants for setting up the testing centres and with laboratory equipment. India can also offer to train Nepalis to man these testing centres. New Delhi should also offer Nepal help in boosting its agricultural productivity and share with farmers and agricultural scientists of that country its knowhow in this sector.
For the good of its own people, India itself should move towards organic cultivation. Indian exporters also need to plan ahead and ensure that only fruits and vegetables that are organic or which have the permissible levels of pesticides are exported to Nepal.
And lastly, those manning the Indian mission in Kathmandu should keep one vital principle in mind: diplomacy is best conducted behind closed doors and acting like a bully, which it has often done, does not endear India to the people of Nepal.