Incident Reports

Between the blockade and the unrest: A humanitarian crisis is brewing in Nepal - Gyanu Adhikari's Op-ed


Bagmati, Kathmandu, Kathmandu

A humanitarian crisis is brewing in Nepal, particularly in the southern plains were protests over the new constitution have been going on almost for two months now. Petrol started to disappear with the first rumours of a blockade at the border with India, days after the constitution was finally promulgated on September 20. Two weeks later, the streets are almost deserted as lack of fuel has meant that traffic has slowed down drastically and the economy is paralysed. Vital services like hospitals are finding it difficult to access fuel for generators for times when there is no electricity, which is often as Nepal suffers heavy power cuts. Hospitals and pharmacies in more remote districts are reported to be running out of supplies as the transport system grinds to a halt.

The airports are almost normal, however, even as travellers make weary plans amid warnings from authorities to airlines to refuel outside the country. All the news stations seem to agree that the days of the blockade at border trade points are orchestrated by protesters with support from the government of India, and have disrupted life in Nepal completely. 'Now or never' Far from the power centres in Kathmandu and Delhi, where diplomacy has succumbed to arm-twisting, in countless village and towns in the country’s southern plains, where the strikes had closed the schools, public offices, factories, and roads, life has found a new rhythm around protests. The country’s longest highway that runs east to west at the foothills on the hills is empty, its emptiness occasionally punctured by convoys of buses “escorted” by the police to their destinations. The sheer length of the protests and loss of life, with 44 dead, signals a durable commitment. The sunk cost is too high to give up now. “This time, it’s now or never,” says a man inside a tent in No Man’s Land, the middle of a bridge that connects the town of Birgunj in Nepal to Raxaul in Bihar.

There are three tents, each belonging to three separate alliances of Madhesi parties. At the border checkpoints, the protesters and government forces clash regularly. Here too, petrol is in short supply, and a small black market has come up around the No Man’s Land. Enterprising men with motorcycles go across, fill them up, and sell it by the litre at twice the price on their side. Eastern Nepal The situation is worse in the villages of the plains in Eastern Nepal, where, the early days of protest saw reckless use of force by the security forces, particularly the paramilitary, as the police have abandoned the village check posts to concentrate their strength in towns. Some villages are scarred. In a village in Bajrahi near the town of Jaleswor, a convoy of paramilitary sped through the dirt road, spraying bullets. Three were injured. Two – a grandfather his grandson – were shot dead in the interval of two days. Few kilometres away, in the town of Janakpur, women waving party flags march through the town. “The police behaviour is a real shame because the relationship between police and locals had improved in the last seven years,” said Kanchan Jha, a Birgunj resident who has witnessed ups and downs of the region. “They had become dramatically better after they suppressed armed groups terrorising the people.” Around 2008, dozens of armed groups mushroomed in the plains, some under the veneer of a political party.

They kidnapped, extorted, and terrorised the people. Now, with the police gone, small-time crooks, smugglers and thieves, will become active again. Villagers worry that armed thugs will be back again. Just last week, dacoits attacked villagers in Mahottari. Blind to suffering Kathmandu today is more concerned with forming the new government than solving the issue around the constitution. Daily newspapers angrily denounce the blockade and Delhi’s high handedness but are lukewarm about the suffering of the people in the south. The radio stations transmit patriotic songs. “We’ll not back off, we’ll fight hard, that’s the habit of Nepalis,” say the patriotic songs, relics from the days of royal autocracy. “China! Chinese border! Quick!” says the chorus of pundits. But China is nowhere in sight. The northern border is closed because of the earthquake in April. The millions destitute there live in tin sheds, worrying about the arrival of cold winter. “Let’s explore oil!” says a chorus of nationalist youth. “We will starve but we will not give in to India!” “This goes beyond the norm of international relations,” says the refrain of professional nationalists. Their distaste extends to boycotting Hindi channels, Bollywood. Movie theatres claim they don’t have fuel for generators to screen them anyway.

A crisis situation Through its absence, the government is present more than ever in people’s lives. While the government and the protesters have finally started talking, two days of talks have yielded no returns. The protesters accuse the government of not fulfilling the pre-conditions to create a proper atmosphere. These include recalling the army and the paramilitary, declaring the dead protesters as martyrs and providing Rs one million to their families, and covering the medical expenses of the protesters. The formation of a new government, as required by the new constitution, has assumed priority over solving the issue around the constitution. However, given the humanitarian crisis, the Indian blockade is creating, and the difficulties of sustaining a prolonged protest movement, all sides to the conflict are on the lookout for a political solution.

The solution proposed by the ruling parties entails a constitutional amendment ensuring proportional inclusion of Nepal's ethnic groups in state structures and delineation of election constituencies based on population. This would have to pass by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, a task that depends on the political deal on which the next government is formed. Meanwhile, petrol lines keep getting longer. People with cars have started a carpool system that is heavily advertised on Facebook. Some folks, like Rajan Karki, line up for four days to fill up their taxis. They go three in a group so they can take turns while queuing up. Incomes have evaporated. Kari spent Rs 1,500 in those four days just to survive. To makeup, he charges three times the usual rate. “Our supplies will run out in a week,” says a corner-store owner. That means essentials like rice, daal, salt, sugar will become scarce by the day. “Make sure you stock up on the insulin,” the pharmacy owner warns the chronically ill patient. “School’s closed because we’ve run out of cooking gas,” a teacher informs his colleagues in the bar.

The hot monsoon gives way to cool autumn, and millions get ready to travel home, from wherever they are, for the festivals. It’s supposed to be the time for celebrations, but politics keeps coming in the way. Adhikari is a co-founder of