This year should have gone down as a landmark year in Nepal’s history. Ending a seven-year process and after two elections, the country adopted its first Constitution prepared by an elected constituent assembly in September. But two other events ensured that 2015 will be remembered more for things other than the statute. The first was the devastating earthquakes in April and May that claimed nearly 9,000 lives. The border blockade by Madhesis to protest against the Constitution and the resulting crisis is the other. The residents of the Terai plains bordering India, who comprise nearly 30% of Nepal’s population, feel the Constitution doesn’t guarantee equal rights to them. They want proportional representation in state organs, delimitation of constituencies, fresh demarcation of federal boundaries so that the stretch in the Terai from east to west falls within two Madhes states and a change in citizenship laws.
The ongoing blockade, especially the one at Birganj through which most trade with India takes place, has choked Nepal and there is a severe scarcity of essential goods, petroleum products and medicines. Trucks have been entering through border points not blocked by Madhesis but they are not enough to fill the demand and supply gap.
A parallel economy based on smuggling of fuel and LPG from India has sprung up. People wait in long queues for days to get a few litres of fuel or a half-filled LPG cylinder. There is a dearth of life-saving medicines and hospitals have been forced to postpone operations because of power cuts and lack of diesel to run generators. Fewer public transport vehicles on roads have forced people to travel atop buses and the government has resorted to selling firewood.
Sobha Rai, a 52-year-old mother of three had an operation to remove a tumour in her intestine in October. Instead of celebrating Dashain festival, the domestic help exhausted her savings on the procedure. “I don’t know how I will run the kitchen as I don’t have money to buy cylinders at inflated prices from the black market, nor the energy to carry firewood and chop it,” she says. According to Unicef, nearly three million children in Nepal under the age of five are at risk of death or disease during this winter because of a severe scarcity of food, medicines and vaccines. The crisis has caused prices of cereals and fuel to skyrocket.
Hoarders are selling a half-filled LPG cylinder worth NRs 1,000 at anywhere between NRs 6,000 to NRs 10,000 (gas agencies are selling half-filled ones to cater to as many consumers as possible) and a litre of petrol can cost NRs 400 or more.
“If trade remains restricted and food prices continue to rise, a serious humanitarian crisis will be hard to avoid,” David Kaatrud, the World Food Programme’s regional director, had said last week.
It is estimated that nearly a million will slip below the poverty line because of the quakes. A new report by Nepal’s central bank said another 800,000 could suffer the same fate owing to the border blockade. Over 2,200 industries have stopped operating, the flow of tourists has dwindled and agricultural output is expected to fall sharply. The country is staring at negative economic growth for the first time in 33 years.
Anti-India sentiments are at its peak now. From Prime Minister KP Oli to the common man, most Nepalese hold New Delhi responsible for the crisis. Despite India’s repeated denials, many believe New Delhi is supporting the Madhesi protest through an embargo on goods. The agitation has been on for four months and has claimed 50 lives. “This is a political problem and needs a political solution. If they (the government) don’t change their present attitude of delaying, diverting or diluting the issue, this will go on,” said Upendra Yadav, chairman of the Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal, one of four parties that make up the United Democratic Madhesi Front.
Instead of resolving the situation, senior ministers in Nepal have resorted to fuelling anti-India sentiments and playing the China card. Nepal received 1,300 kilolitres of petrol from China last month as a grant. Both countries signed a framework agreement in October for trade in petroleum products but details are yet to be worked out. Once that happens, India will cease to remain the sole supplier of fuel products to Nepal.
With no proper roadmap, several rounds of talks between the government, the opposition Nepali Congress and four Madhesi parties have failed to yield any results. On Tuesday, the ruling coalition supported by the Nepali Congress tabled a bill in parliament seeking the Constitution’s amendment to accommodate Madhesi demands. But the protesting parties rejected the bill, saying it doesn’t address their demand for reorganisation of state boundaries.
“The situation is the outcome of a crisis of trust between the three major parties and Madhesi parties, India and Nepal and within the three major parties as they have failed to fulfil past promises,” said former foreign minister of Nepal, Ramesh Nath Pandey.
With no side willing to budge, the crisis could prolong. Till then, Sobha and hundreds of thousands of Nepalese like her will have no option but to endure hardships and pray for succour to come soon.