Still smiling and uncomplaining: Glimpse of life in Nepal after India’s ‘unofficial blockade’

This article appeared on Firstpost on November 3rd and can be seen here.

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India’s ‘undeclared’ oil blockade has continued to cripple Nepal for over a month and Kathmandu has been forced to ration fuel after India blocked supplies and declared its ‘unhappiness’ against a tenet in the landlocked country’s new Constitution. And now, China has stepped in and has signed it’s first ever fuel agreement with Nepal, something only India could boast of until a month ago.

From the jubilant cries of friendship and brotherhood in the aftermath of the earthquake to a sudden shift in relations, it’s strange to think that the attitude of most Nepalis has now changed one of hatred towards India. Nepal has gone from declaring India as one of its closest allies to disownment and is now moving closer towards China.

Early last month saw people queue up for miles outside petrol pumps, sometimes waiting days to procure just a mere five litres of fuel. Celebrations during the Nepali festival of Dashain were also marred by extreme oil shortages, putting a dampener on the mountain country’s biggest festival.

Long lines as Kathmandu waits to refuel. Pictures by Jessica Tradati

Many in Nepal contend that India has taken its ‘big brother’ tag a bit too far. Twitter users were quick to make#BackOffIndia trend worldwide as Nepali citizens protested against India’s intervention in October. India however had waded into Nepal’s Constitution crisis and recommended seven amendments.

Fuel shortage

Citizens of Kathmandu have taken to the streets and are even setting up roadside fireplaces to cook food after they ran out of fuel.  To add to their problems, prices have dramatically increased. Taxi drivers and vehicles fares are extremely high and hot showers are a thing of the past.

“Things got so bad that even the Indian Embassy in Nepal had to ask the government for more fuel prompting huge laughs from the citizens of Kathmandu, some queuing up outside the Indian Embassy in Lainchaur with a litre of petrol in bottles and cans donating it to the Indian Embassy,” said Nepali citizen Laxmi Pradhan to Firstpost.

But that’s just tip of the iceberg as far as Nepal’s problems are concerned.

Subodh Raj Pyakurel, another Kathmandu resident told Firstpost that, “Indian Oil Corporation is supplying hardly 10 percent of gasoline and LPG.”

“People are facing acute shortage of lifeline supplies. In the industrial power sector, our dependence on fossil fuel is 60 percent. All most all industries are closed. Public transport is reduced by 60 percent,” he adds.

The Indo-Nepal border opening at the Birgunj-Raxaul border point was finally opened today after 40 days and India has been blocking trucks carrying goods from third countries into Nepal. There are long snaking queues  lasting a distance of 12 to 14 kilometres of loaded trucks and containers.

India's unofficial blockade has caused a fuel crisis in the Himalayan Country. Pictures by Jessica Tradati

“Travelling long distances has gotten so bad as buses have to stop and wait for a few litres of petrol every couple of hours,” says Nepal Needs Help founder Jessica Tradati.

Since the blockade has been imposed, Nepal has been suffering from an acute shortage of cooking and oxygen gas, gasoline, medicines and other daily humanitarian supplies.

“All students travelling in school buses are unable to go to school so classes have been closed. Life saving drugs for Kidney patients, Cancer and ICU related medicines are in short supply. Hospitals are cooking on firewood. Hotels have reduced their menu. Two-thirds of Kathmandu and the surrounding cities are supplied with potable water tankers,” said Pyakurel.

“My son and I have become cyclists for the seven-mile commute to and from his school. The streets are full of bicycles and pedestrians. Nepali friends joke that their health is improving on the “Indian fitness program,” writes journalist Donatella Lorch for New York Times from Kathmandu.

Many have blamed the oil crisis for the death of 29 festive passengers travelling to get teeka on Dashain, who lost their lives in October, as a bus overloaded with passengers with most of them being forced to travel on the roof, plunged off a road into a gorge.

The reason behind the blockade

Ethnic Madhesi protesters stand near smoke from a tire set on fire by them, as Nepalese policemen stand guard at Birgunj, a town on the border with India. AP

Nepal’s Madhesi community has been involved in violent protest along the Terai region that borders India’s Bihar. AsFirstpost’s Rajeev Sharma has noted“India’s biggest concern is that Madhesis are up in arms against the secular and democratic constitution that Nepal has put into effect on 20 September. The Terai region constitutes one-fifth of Nepal’s land mass, but accounts for over half of the nation’s population.”

But many in Nepal feel that India should have found a better way to express its displeasure.

“Even the European Parliament while acknowledging that there are certainly areas for improvement in the newly-adopted Constitution, made the point that the unofficial ‘blockade’ at the Nepali border only serves to hurt the Nepali people who are still recovering from the devastating earthquakes earlier this year,” says Kathmandu resident Laxmi Pradhan.

“The fuel shortages as a result of the blockade are also having an impact on tourism in what is usually the peak season in Nepal, causing further damage to the economy of the country and the livelihoods of many,” she adds.

China to the rescue

Amidst its current trials and tribulations, Nepal’s apparent knight in shining armour has been China, who announced last week that it is to supply fuel to its impoverished neighbour Nepal for the first time ending India’s run as the sole fuel provider to the Himalayan country.

“We have signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with China National United Oil Corporation to supply the petroleum products that Nepal needs,” said Deepak Baral, spokesman at the state-run Nepal Oil Corporation to AFP.

Nepalese people sit on top of a crowded bus as it passes near lined cooking gas cylinders in Kathmandu. AP

“This is the first time that China is commercially supplying petroleum to Nepal, so we need to study various aspects like price and transportation of the fuel,” Baral said.

Beijing has previously agreed to donate 1.3 million litres of petrol to the country. Sceptics in Nepal have raised eyebrows after India released a statement following the signing of the Nepal-China fuel deal.

External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Vikas Swarup said toPTI that, “India was ready to facilitate airlifting of the aviation turbine fuel, as was done in past, as also re-routing of LPG supplies from those crossings which were not affected. “

He also added, “We are certainly concerned over growth of anti-India sentiment in Nepal and we hope that the situation which has been caused entirely by problems on the Nepalese side will be resolved at the earliest and our relationship would once again return to its original status.”

But Nepal’s spirit despite everything, remains unbroken.

“Despite the fuel crisis Nepal has taken things one day at a time and are still smiling and they don’t complain,” says Jessica.

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