By- Archita Srivastava
A seemingly innocuous draft agreement between Nepal and China to re-measure the height of Mount Everest has sent alarm bells ringing within the Indian government, according to sources.
A clause in the agreement that calls on Beijing and Kathmandu to collaborate jointly on ‘monitoring, mapping and geo-information management’ is at the root of New Delhi’s concerns. A ‘focal point’ will be established for ‘related information sharing and coordination’ in both countries.
Reference for general cooperation on surveying and mapping has given rise to some concern, sources claim, especially in the light of increasing Chinese activity in Nepal, especially in strategic areas. In October 2019, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal, one of the takeaways in the joint statement was the joint announcement of the re-measured height of the world’s tallest mountain, which was described as an ‘eternal symbol of the friendship between Nepal and China’.
For Nepal, the height of the Everest has always been a sensitive matter and its measurement a ‘national pride’ project. Climbing permits to Everest alone earn around $4 million for Nepal government, with the mountain also supporting a wide-ranging economic network of porters, guides and tourism industry.
It is learnt that China now wants Nepal to sign an agreement to sell this outcome through a memorandum of understanding.
‘If the announcement has already been made, why is China pushing Nepal to sign this MoU?’ asked an Indian government official, requesting anonymity.
The title of the draft agreement, a copy of which has been seen by The Wire, is ‘joint declaration of the height of Mount Zhumulangma/Sagarmatha.’ It is proposed to be signed between the Nepal Ministry of Land Management, Cooperation and Poverty Relief and the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources.
Article 3 of the draft agreement states that the two countries must jointly conduct ‘data processing together, before the announcement’ of the summit in Beijing and Kathmandu.
The fourth clause then states that both countries shall conduct joint work in the fields of ‘geodetic data, topographical mapping and geographic information’ in the ‘Everest region’ to help protect the environment.
While the fourth clause confines itself to Everest-related scientific research, draft Article 5 has no such geographic restriction.
‘The parties shall establish a communication mechanism to promote the collaboration on various activities in surveying, mapping and geo-information management, and each party shall appoint a focal point to be responsible for related information sharing and coordination,’ it said.
Worries about wider presence of China in Nepal.
This orientation towards broader collaboration in surveying and mapping is causing consternation in New Delhi, with the Indian government already worried about the wider presence of China in Nepal.
The height of Mount Everest has always been accepted as 8,848 metres, as measured by the Survey of India in 1954.
Over the decades, various countries had made their own calculations, but they had never been accepted.
China has already undertaken two missions to re-measure the peak, with the last mission having triggered a long dispute with Nepal.
In 2005, China announced that the height of Everest was 8,844.43 metres, which was four metres less than the standard accepted measurement. The Chinese calculation was based on the rock height, while Nepal asserted that the snowcap at the peak should be included. A compromise was reached in 2010 after both countries agreed to recognize two different heights of Mount Everest based on rock and snow.
The devastating 2015 earthquake had revived the debate of the height, with geologists observing that a swathe of the Himalayas, including where Everest was located, had ‘shrunk’ due to tectonic activity.
The Nepali government began its indigenous measurement project in 2017 for a total cost of $2.5 million. India’s offer to conduct the exercise jointly was turned by Nepal. Nepal’s top official in the department of the survey had noted that it was a ‘question of self-respect’.
A Hindustan Times report quoted the department of survey’s director-general that while China was ‘ready to assist Nepal’ if the Himalayan nation required any help, it ‘will seek support from both India and China’.
Nepali surveyors finally reached the Everest’s peak in the early hours on May 22, 2019. As per a Rising Nepal report of the ascent, a spokesperson of the survey department said that with the collection of data from the summit, ‘more than 75% of the task of measuring the height’ had been achieved. The plan was to announce the Everest’s new height measurement in 2020, as per Nepali media reports.
While the sovereignty over the Everest is not at stake, the importance of the mountain to Nepali nationalistic pride was again demonstrated when the Chinese state-backed news website CGTN had to delete a social media post in May that described the Everest as being located in the Tibet Autonomous Region. After outrage from Nepali Twitterati, positioned Everest on the ‘China-Nepal border’.