Context: India and Nepal have reached a flashpoint over the Kalapani territorial issue that appears to threaten the basis of their special relationship, which has nurtured open borders and the free movement of people. 

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  • The low was triggered over the inauguration of a motorable road to the Lipulekh pass, near the disputed Kalapani area, which is used by Indian pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar. 

About the Road:

Source: The Hindu

  • It is on the route of the annual Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, which goes through Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. 
  • The 80 km road goes right up to the Lipu Lekh pass on the LAC, through which Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims exit India into China to reach the mountain and lake revered as the abode of Shiva. 
  • The last section of 4 km of the road up to the pass still remains to be completed.

Significance of Road for India:

  • It is important for “strategic, religious and trade” reasons.
  • It should be possible to complete the entire distance from Delhi to Lipu Lekh in 2 days
  • Yatris do not need the alternative routes now available for the pilgrimage, one through the Nathu La border in Sikkim and the other via Nepal.
    • Further the alternate routes entail 20 per cent land journeys on Indian roads and 80 per cent land journeys in China.
    • This ratio has been reversed now and pilgrims to Mansarovar will traverse 84 per cent land journeys on Indian roads and only 16 per cent in China.”
  • The new road is also expected to provide better connectivity to Indian traders for the India-China border trade at the Lipu Lekh pass between June and September every summer.
  • The Standing Committee on Defence, in its 2017-2018 report, noted that “the country, being surrounded by some difficult neighbours, with a view to keeping pace, construction of roads and development of adequate infrastructure along the borders is a vital necessity”.
  • This helps in effective border management, security and development of infrastructure in inaccessible areas adjoining the China Border and lack of it creates difficulties as seen during the 2017 Doklam Standoff.

Nepal’s Objection to Road:

  • It issued a statement expressing disappointment over New Delhi’s Act and said it went against the spirit of Bilateral understanding.
  •  It has brought up its concerns on the border issue several times, including in November 2019, when Delhi put out its new political map of India to show the bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir.
  • Nepal’s objection then was the inclusion of Kalapani in the map, in which it is shown as part of Uttarakhand. The area falls in the trijunction between India, China and Nepal.
    • The publication of the map brought protesters out on the streets. The ruling Nepal Communist Party and the opposition Nepali Congress also protested. 

Main Bone of Contention: Source of Kali River

  • The Nepal-India border was delineated by the Sugauli Treaty of 1816, under which it renounced all territory to the west of the river Kali, also known as the Mahakali or the Sarada river. The river effectively became the boundary.
    • Before the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli, the Nepalese kingdom stretched from the Sutlej river in the west to the Teesta river in the East
    • Nepal lost the Anglo-Nepalese War and the resulting Treaty limited Nepal to its present territories.
  • The terms were reiterated by a second treaty between Nepal and British India in 1923. 
  • Nepal’s Position :The rival territorial claims centre on the source of the Kali.
    • Nepal’s case is that the river originates from a stream at Limpiyadhura, north-west of Lipu Lekh. 
    • Thus Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura, and Lipu Lekh, fall to the east of the river and are part of Nepal’s Far West province in the district of Dharchula.
  • New Delhi’s position:  Kali originates in springs well below the pass, and that while the Treaty does not demarcate the area north of these springs, administrative and revenue records going back to the nineteenth century show that Kalapani was on the Indian side, and counted as part of Pithoragarh district, now in Uttarakhand. 
  • Both sides have their own British-era maps as proof of their positions.

Initiatives to resolve the issue

  • In the 1980s, the two sides set up the Joint Technical Level Boundary Working Group to delineate the boundary, which demarcated everything except Kalapani and the other problem area in Susta.
  • When it was discussed at the prime ministerial level in 2000, between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and B P Koirala during the latter’s visit to Delhi, both sides agreed to demarcate the outstanding areas by 2002. That has not happened.

Impact of Issue on Nepal:

  • Strong protests are being held against India in Nepal and the country has threatened to send more forces on the India-Nepal border. 
  • It has  adopted a new political map that claims not only Lipulekh but other areas (Kalapani and  Limpiyadhura) that are in Indian territory but have been claimed by Nepal invoking the 1816 Sugauli treaty. 

China’s Role in Kalapani/ Lipulekh Region:

  • Since the 1962 war with China, India has deployed the ITBP at Kalapani, which is advantageously located at a height of over 20,000 ft and serves as an observation post for that area.
  • Nepal has also been unhappy about the China-India trading post at Lipu Lekh, the earliest to be established between the two countries.
    • Shipkila in Himachal followed two years later, and Nathu La only in 2006.
  • A year later, during the Doklam crisis, China raised temperatures by suggesting that India would not be able to do anything if the PLA decided to walk in “through Kalapani or into Kashmir, through PoK”, both trijunctions like Doklam.
  • Though China has said nothing about the road construction to Lipu Lekh, it has protested similar road building activity at other places on the Indian side close to the LAC, including Ladakh.

Way Ahead:

  • In view of all this, Kalapani and the approach to Lipu Lekh has only grown in strategic importance for India, especially as relations between the two countries have remained uneven over the last few years, and China has upped its game for influence in India's neighbourhood.
    • India’s tacit support to a blockade of the landlocked country during protests over the new Constitution in Nepal by the Madhesi community was an inflection point in the relationship.
    • Despite the open border with India and the people to people contact through the hundreds of thousands of Nepali people who live and work in this country, the levels of distrust in Nepal about India have only increased.
  • For its part, India perceives Nepal to be tilting towards China under the leadership of Prime Minister K P Oli and his Nepal Communist Party. 
  • Responding to Nepal’s protests, India has said it is ready to discuss the matter at foreign secretary level talks between the two countries.
  • The talks were meant to be held earlier this year, but were put off due to the COVID outbreak.
  • Thus the need of hour is to clear respective doubts and apprehensions through robust diplomacy and bilateral negotiations.
  • India has successfully resolved far more intractable border issues with Bangladesh not so long ago, covering both the land and maritime boundaries. 
    • The land boundary settlement required an exchange of territories in adverse possession of the two countries, including the transfer of population, and a constitutional amendment to give effect to the 1974 India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement.


  • Given the importance of ties with Nepal, often romanticised as one of “roti-beti” (food and marriage), India must not delay dealing with the matter.
  • Also at a time when it already has its hands full with the pandemic and a faceoff with China in Ladakh and Sikkim, the differences between India-Nepal shouldn’t grow into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

About Kailash mansarovar Yatra:

  • Pilgrims from India can reach Kailash Mansarovar through three routes — via Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Kathmandu in Nepal — all of which are long and arduous.
  • The yatra is organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the journey beyond the International Border is overseen by Chinese authorities.
  • The Kailash-Mansarovar road alignment is along the Kali river, which is the boundary between India and Nepal.
  • To access Kailash through Sikkim, China and India opened the Nathu La border point in 2015. 
  • The new route via Nathu La is shorter, safer and more comfortable.

About Kalapani Region:

  • Kalapani is a territory disputed between India and Nepal, but under Indian administration as part of Pithoragarh district in the Uttarakhand state. 
  • Kalapani lies at a tri-junction of India, China and Nepal, on the dividing line of the Kali River watershed and Tinkar River watershed.
  • While the territory is geographically a tri-junction, it is disputed only by India and Nepal .

About Lipulekh Pass

  • It is  a tri-junction of India, China and Nepal.
  • Lipulekh Pass also known as Lipu-Lekh Pass/Qiangla or Tri-Corner is a high altitude mountain pass situated in the western Himalayas with an extraordinary height of 5,334 metre or 17,500 feet. 
  • It is an International mountain pass between India, China and Nepal and is one of the India-China trade routes.
  • Geographically, Lipulekh is wedged between Nepal, India and China connecting the north-western Byash valley of Nepal and Uttarakhand state with the old trading town of Taklakot in Tibet.
  • Mana pass, Mangsha Dhura, Niti pass and Muling La passe  also located in Uttarakhand 

Source: Tribune India