Nov 8, 2011

Buddha’s way

By: Yubaraj Ghimire

About a week before Nepal Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai embarked on a goodwill trip to India, he had announced a high-powered committee for the development of Lumbini, under the leadership of Prachanda, the chief of the Maoist party. This triggered speculation that in case Bhattarai felt unwelcome in India, he would turn to the north and involve China in a big way in the Lumbini project, apparently for the all-round development of the birth place of Lord Buddha.

There is a background to this speculation. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation’s China chapter and the Beijing-backed Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) had signed a deal in mid-July to turn Lumbini into a “special development zone”. Prachanda is one of the vice-chairpersons of the APECF. However, despite the fact that the Jhalanath Khanal-led government survived on the support of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M), the then prime minister had politely told Prachanda that such a mega project could not and should not be brought in haste, without assessing its pros and cons.

While the Nepal government refrained from making any statement, Prachanda kept saying that he was determined to bring the project that was worth $3 billion. However, no master plan was discussed, the source of funding was not disclosed and the specific details of the project were not revealed. A release by the foundation just said, “What we are looking at here is a comprehensive project that brings together all aspects of economic development, including infrastructure upgrades, employment opportunities, environmental protection and, most notably, poverty alleviation.” The Chinese government authorities too went all out to promote the project, much to the dismay of many in Kathmandu.

Lumbini, 170 km west of Kathmandu and about 50 km from India’s southern border, attracts half a million tourists and pilgrims a year and is revered especially by Buddhists and Hindus. Interestingly, the groups and individuals involved in the initiative are mostly non-Buddhists or even atheists. Some were hardly votaries of non-violence that Buddha preached. Prachanda and Bhattarai’s insistence on appropriating the project is bound to bring into question many such issues.

However, something else changed once Prime Minister Bhattarai returned from Delhi, quite satisfied with the welcome he had got. The committee made New York, not Beijing, its first destination. The group has met UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ostensibly to seek his support for the project — for a personal touch, his mother is Buddhist. Prachanda said he would request Ban to be the key figure of the project at the international level. Former UN secretary-general U Thant had taken personal interest in Lumbini’s development during his decade-long tenure until 1971 and a master plan had been prepared, but things did not progress as planned.

With the relationship between India and the Maoists apparently restored, Prachanda has also clarified that he is not going to depend on Beijing alone for the project. Prior to his departure to New York on Saturday, he said that he would also approach India for support. According to him, linking Lumbini with other Buddhist pilgrimage centres like Sarnath, Kushinagar and Bodh Gaya, is something uppermost in his mind, and that Lumbini will come up as a “global peace centre”.

Bhattarai has entrusted the Prachanda-led committee with this gigantic project at a time when the Maoist chief himself faces questions about his financial probity. He is being asked to furnish details by his party leaders about the levy — the party’s 237 legislators pay Rs 10,000 each month — and other financial matters that he handles. Moreover, the departure of Prachanda and other members of the committee to New York is also likely to hamper the work related to the peace process and the drafting of the constitution.
Is the Lumbini issue more important at this moment? There are fears that the promised $3 billion may not come to Nepal if the project is not pursued immediately. But like the source of those billions of dollars, the entire issue gets more and more mysterious.

(Courtesy: Indian Express)

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