Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha has of late received the attention it deserves but sadly for the wrong reasons. The spiritual significance of the site appears to be in conflict with the ‘Greater Lumbini Project' which proposes to commercialize the place. Recent unrests have been witnessed by factions opposing such development. This article attempts to engage with the following questions: what factors have led to the unrest in Lumbini? What does Nepal plan to achieve by marketing Lumbini? Will this become a source of anxiety between Nepal’s two largest neighbours - India and China?
Lumbini is one of the four major Buddhist pilgrimages renowned in the Indian sub-continent (others include Sarnath (teaching), Bodh Gaya (enlightenment) and Kushinagar (death), all in India). In comparison to the other three sites, Lumbini has for long been in a desolate condition. Given the significance of the site, any effort to develop it should have been welcomed. However, recent plans of developing the site have been met with severe opposition from the Buddhist community in Nepal which resorted to staging of a peace rally and promulgation of the five-point demands.
Internal as well as external factors account for this. Internally speaking, the crucial factor behind the protests has been the involvement of former Prime Minister of Nepal – Pushpa Kamal Dahal – Prachanda as the coordinator of the Lumbini Development National Steering Committee. Given Prachanda’s credentials (he is believed to have indulged in a violent killing spree during the civil war period) and his being of Hindu faith, his association with the committee, has irked Buddhists in Nepal. Surprisingly, he is also the co-chairman of the Hong Kong based Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF), the primary funding agency in Lumbini. Closely associated with this is the priority given by Prachanda during his premiership and after, to Lumbini’s development over Nepal’s peace process.
Second, is the demand of Buddhists against ‘the exploitation of religion for economic progress’ and in favour of the appointment of ‘stake holders’ and not ‘non-believers’ to manage development at Lumbini. This is given the religious sentiments attached, which has not permitted any commercialization within three sq kms area around the site till date. However, if the current plan comes into play, Lumbini shall house an international airport, tourist facilities, convention centre and a Buddhist university among others.
The external reasons building into the chaos are, first, the surfacing of APECF, a non-governmental organization as the major funder, which has pledged to pool in US$3 billion, into development activities. Doubts have been cast over APECF’s funding sources and its (un)apparent links to the communist party in Beijing. Second, is the declaration of an agreement signed between the APECF, UNIDO (United National Industrial Development Organization), Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) and the Chinese Government, which if UNIDO and Nepal government sources are to be believed was never signed. Third, the involvement of Beijing, an ‘officially atheist state’ has also added to the chaos in Lumbini as well. It deserves mention here that the peace rally was taken out by the ‘indigenous Buddhists’ of Nepal and the unease with Beijing’s involvement does not have a political connotation to it.
Lumbini happens to be a major tourist destination in Nepal with a record 98,431 visitors (excluding Indians) as of October 2011. The declaration of 2012 as Visit Lumbini Year (VLY), the selection of peace ambassadors and the planning of international conferences in Buddha’s nativity reflects the enthusiasm with which Nepal is trying to market Lumbini. By projecting Lumbini as a ‘peace city’, Nepal can enhance its national pride, garner international support and at the same time boost government revenues, create jobs and improve infrastructure. No doubt, the kicking off the current plan has the potential to lift Nepal’s staggering economy.
In this author’s opinion then, it all comes down to selling it to the right investors as the required marketing has already been done - Lumbini features in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site and continues to be addressed as the ‘Mecca of Buddhists’.
Both India and China, Nepal’s largest neighbours, have stakes in Lumbini. Chinese stakes revolve around the percentage of people of Buddhist faith in the country as well as the increase of these Buddhist tourists to Lumbini. For this reason, China has become more tolerant of Buddhism portraying itself as the supreme protector of the religion. Additionally, Chinese involvement in APECF’s affairs, the close relationship between Prachanda and Chinese Communist Party and the proposed railway line connecting Kerung Rasuwa with Lumbini, also signals a Chinese interest. Indian stakes in Lumbini are equally appealing. Lumbini is situated at merely eight kilometers from the Indo-Nepal border. There already exists an India-led Buddhist circuit to Lumbini, also covering Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar. The fact of India being the ‘karmabhoomi’ of Buddha as against the ‘janmabhoomi’ has also added to India’s advantage. As such any intrusion into the area has the potential to generate anxiety in both countries.
In sum, Lumbini represents a complex interplay of religious sentiments and vested interests. However, plans to make Lumbini the ‘Mecca of the Buddhist world’ are far from actual realization given the politicization of the issue. Lumbini’s development can certainly be in the long term interest of the country provided there is more transparency and public participation in the project. To quote the Economist’, “if the would-be investors handle it better next time, such a huge project may seem irresistible.”