KATHMANDU — Prime Minister Narendra Modi began a two-day visit to Nepal May 11 as the two South Asian nations work to improve relations that were strained over Indian-backed ethnic protests in Nepal in 2015.

Modi first flew to Janakpur in southern Nepal, where he prayed at a revered Hindu temple and addressed a public rally, before heading to the capital, Kathmandu, for official meetings.

Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli flew to Janakpur to welcome Modi.

“Nepal comes first in our neighborhood policy,” Modi told thousands of cheering people gathered in the town, which borders India. “I don’t feel like I have reached a foreign land. I feel like I am among my own people.”

Janakpur was the center of ethnic protests in 2015 against a new constitution that carved Nepal into seven federal states.

Ethnic Madhesi groups demanded more territory in the state assigned to them and shut down highways and border points for weeks. India supported the Madhesi and imposed an export blockade, leading to severe shortages of fuel, medicine and other supplies.

Landlocked Nepal gets all of its oil products and many other supplies from India. At the time Nepal was struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake that killed 9,000 people.

The protests eventually fizzled out and elections have been held in Nepal since then.

Since the December elections, India has been working to improve relations with the new government. Modi sent India’s external affairs ministers to meet Oli even before he took power, and Oli too flew to India for an official visit a few weeks after becoming prime minister.

The two leaders are scheduled to remotely inaugurate a $1.04 billion hydroelectric power plant that is being built by an Indian company in energy-starved Nepal.

Nepal’s two giant neighbors, India and China, have competed for influence over Nepal.

While India has always had major political and economic influence on Nepal, China has been a big contributor of financial aid, building highways, hospitals and airports.

Modi plans to visit two more important Hindu temples before flying home May 12.

IANS adds that in Janakpur, Modi launched the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus line and pledged Rs. 100 crore aid towards the city’s development. 

Visiting Nepal for the first time since the India-imposed 2015 border blockade that crippled Nepal's economy, Modi said his government gave top priority to relations with Kathmandu under his Neighborhood First Policy. 

He later held talks with Nepal President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, during which the two leaders renewed their commitment to take their relations to new heights.

The Indian leader kicked off his visit in Janakpur where he performed special prayers with his Nepali counterpart K.P. Sharma Oli at the Ram Janaki temple. They then inaugurated the "Ramayan Circuit" to promote tourism in Nepal and India. 

"This will act as a foundation for strong people-to-people ties between our two countries," Modi said. The circuit is a part of Modi's vision to build a 650-km connectivity project. 

Modi told Oli he was honored "to be received you the way you welcomed me here."

"Mere bhai, this welcome is an honor to all Indian citizens," Modi said. This is Modi's third visit to Nepal since he became prime minister in 2014.

The Indian leader described his visit as "that of a pilgrim rather than as a prime minister" and participated in the civic reception bestowed upon him by the Janakpur Sub-Metropolitan City at Rangabhumi Maidan. He was felicitated with a 121 kg garland and a key to Janakpur city.

Speaking to a crowd of thousands, Modi said: "Ayodhya is incomplete without Janakidham. Similarly, Nepal is incomplete without India and India is incomplete without Nepal. Our ties are religious, based of deep faith and historical and complement to each others."

He began his speech in the Maithali language, followed by Bhojpuri and Nepali. He completed his address in Hindi. "Without Nepal, India's faith, belief and history are incomplete. Our 'Dhaam' is incomplete and Ram is also incomplete."

Modi announced assistance of Rs. 100 crore to help develop Janakpur and said the city will be added in the Ramayana Circuit, while Lumbini will be included in the Buddhist Circuit. 

He said he wanted to help Nepal to achieve development and prosperity, adding that he wanted to enhance connectivity between Nepal and India with highways, information ways, transmission lines, railways, waterways and airways.

"We know that the regional development is connected with the development of Nepal... History is witness to the struggles faced together by India and Nepal. India is moving ahead to be one of the economic giants of the world and Nepal is following suit.

"These connectivity measures will help Nepal to get better market access, thereby encouraging the establishment of industries and employment creation."

He said the two sides can work on 5 Ts – tradition, trade, tourism, technology and transport.

After completing his engagements in Janakpur, Modi arrived in Kathmandu where he was accorded a 21 gun salute and a guard of honor.

Modi paid a visit to President Bhandari at the Rastrapati Bhawan and discussed matters relating to bilateral relations and other mutual concerns. 

"The two leaders renewed their commitment to take our friendly relations to new heights," said External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar.

Similarly, Modi also called on Vice President Nanda Bahadur Pun and spoke with Nepali Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali on areas of mutual interest. 

Modi is scheduled to hold one-on-one talks with Oli, during which various India-funded projects in Nepal will be discussed. The one-on-one talks will be followed by delegation-level talks and a joint press briefing. Modi will also lay the foundation stone of Arun III hydroelectricity project in the Sankhuwasabha district in eastern Nepal, undertaken by India's Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam, through video conferencing. 

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