Yatika Agrawal and Md Quaisar Ali
The bordering districts of India and Nepal share close cultural and traditional relationships nurtured by the communities on both sides that depend on each other for their livelihoods. The vibrant border markets and the thriving informal cross-border trade are the testimonies.
Since ancient times, India and Nepal hold a special relationship in terms of historical ties, culture, economy, trade and connectivity, defence cooperation, and humanitarian assistance. Nepal shares its border with five Indian states, viz. Bihar, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal spanning over 1,850 kilometres. Both countries share an open border, facilitating uninterrupted and regular movements of people, goods, and services for personal, commercial and emergency purposes. In the financial year 2020-21, their bilateral trade was around 606 billion Rs ($8 billion), with Rs 550 billion ($7.23 billion) exports from India to Nepal and Rs 56 billion ($736 million) exports from Nepal to India.
Besides the friendly relationship that exists between India and Nepal at the governmental and business levels, there exists a much closer community relationship at the local level. Such people-to-people connections help the locals in exploring better livelihood opportunities through social functions/marriages, hospitality and emergency services. It is estimated that more than 7 million Nepalese people work in various parts of India and hundreds of marriages take place between them each year.
Five bridges over the Mahakali River
Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand, India holds an important place in respect to cross-border trade (formal and informal) between India and Nepal. It is the easternmost district in Uttarakhand's Kumaon division, bordering Nepal. There are five suspension footbridges in Pithoragarh that connect India and Nepal at different places over the Mahakali River, viz. Dharchula, Jauljibi, Jhulaghat, Balakot and Daura. Out of them, the Daura Bridge is the latest, which is expected to benefit 50 villages on both sides of the border.
These bridges are used for daily movements of people, goods and services. The bridge entryway opens at 7:00 am Indian Standard Time (67.15 am Nepal Standard Time) in the morning and closes at 5:00 pm IST (5.15 pm NST) in the evening. All traders are permitted to carry a weight of 10 kilograms at a time, manually on head and shoulders. Appropriate checking is executed by border officials on both sides of the bridge.
Among these five bridges, the ones in Dharchula and Jauljibi are considered to be major trading points. A Trade fair is organised every year at Jauljibi to encourage commerce between India and Nepal. Besides, there are vibrant border markets at Dharchula and Jhulaghat.
The locally produced goods that are mostly traded in this border region includes fruits and vegetables, leather shoes, coffer, hoods, drums, bamboo products (used to carry goods such as doka, supta, masta), ropes made hamp sticks, cannabis made from grains, wooden and metal utensils and implements used for different agricultural purposes, jewelleries made of gold and silver, and paper. Goods traded through these bridges are either used directly for consumption or sold to street vendors for further retailing, particularly on the Nepal side.
A significant proportion of cross-border traders are women, as the male population on both sides mostly migrated to urban areas in search of better job opportunities. Additionally, the women in this border region are actively engaged in hand-weaving, loading/unloading, agriculture and allied activities.
Challenges and way forward
However, there are certain challenges faced by both officials and traders, which were expressed during field-level interactions conducted by CUTS international as part of its WE-Trade project, which is implemented in partnership with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, an inter-governmental organisation based at Kathmandu, Nepal. Traders are allowed to carry only one type of goods up to 10 kilograms at a time. Therefore, they have to cross a bridge many times a day, which consumes more time and energy.
Additionally, the goods have to be unloaded and unpackaged twice for checking at both ends of a bridge. Other challenges such as the absence of storage facilities and restrooms, standing in long queues, and limited information regarding policies and procedures hinder effective trade facilitation. Furthermore, women cross-border traders have to face some gender-specific issues such as limited access to finance, access to technology and market linkages, absence of childcare facilities, inadequate toilet facilities, and other safety, security and mobility related challenges.
Some of these challenges can be addressed through improvements in border infrastructure. In February 2022, India and Nepal signed a Memorandum of Understanding to construct a motorable bridge across the Mahakali River at Dharchula. This would be the second motorable bridge in Uttarakhand after the Banbasa Bridge. The new bridge is expected to enhance cross-border connectivity between the Sudurpaschim province of Nepal and the Uttarakhand state of India, and bring the border communities closer.
However, while such infrastructure developments are needed, there should be a better socio-economic understanding among all stakeholders that women’s participation in cross-border trade is vital for the sustainability of border economies along the India-Nepal border. While better infrastructure can enhance their mobility, there is a need for awareness among women regarding the goods that can be carried, weight restrictions, prices across borders, among others.
Thus, in order to promote optimal and effective trade facilitation at border points, information dissemination through sustained campaigns, display boards in local languages, help and monitoring desks, and at-the-border grievance redressal system are crucial. Equally important is regular engagements between local communities and customs and other border agencies to promote gender-friendly cross-border trade practices.
(Agrawal and Ali are Research Associates at CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulation and governance. The views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)