In the time of fuel crisis: commuting in Nepal

In the time of fuel crisis: commuting in Nepal

For months now, Nepal has been facing a fuel crisis. Buses in Kathmandu are packed at the best of times, but the protests over the country’s new constitution and the resultant border blockade have worsened the situation considerably. There are fewer vehicles on the road now—owners have been forced to leave their empty-tanked cars and bikes at home—and hence an increasing reliance on buses. Here’s a glimpse of daily life during the fuel crisis.


Dozens of people gather at Lagankhel bus station, listening as conductors call out their buses’ destinations. You have to be quick if you want a seat, or standing room, or something to hang on to. Photo: Patrick Ward

Dozens of people gather at Lagankhel bus station, one of the major transport hubs for travel within the Kathmandu Valley, listening as conductors call out their buses’ destinations. You have to be quick if you want a seat, or standing room, or something to hang on to. Photo: Patrick Ward


It’s not an easy school run, as people flock to the buses in the hope of squeezing themselves onboard. The brave, and desperate, scramble up the back of the bus to perch on the roof. Of course, if this bus is full (and the bus workers will only say so once every inch of space is full), there’s always the next one… Photo: Patrick Ward

It’s not an easy school run, as people flock to the buses in the hope of squeezing themselves onboard. The brave, and desperate, scramble up the back of the bus to perch on the roof. I don’t think this one will have quite enough room for me, despite the reassurances of the bus workers (who will routinely attempt to fill every inch of space with passengers). I decide to wait, there is bound to be space in one of the larger buses… Photo: Patrick Ward

…or not. Even the larger vehicles on longer routes are full to bursting. Photo: Patrick Ward

…or not. Even the buses on longer routes are full to bursting, with passengers finding foot-room among sacks of rice, cooking gas canisters and various other pieces of luggage. Photo: Patrick Ward

Here’s part of the problem. A kilometre-long line of buses waits for fuel at a petrol station. Stocks are only occasionally replenished, and it is common for drivers to wait several days to refuel. Some sit in their buses playing cards, some just go home and wait. Photo: Patrick Ward

Here’s part of the problem. A kilometre-long line of buses waits for fuel at a petrol station. Stocks are only occasionally replenished, and it is common for drivers to wait several days to refuel. Some sit in their buses playing cards, some just go home and wait. Photo: Patrick Ward

Rajul Mahnama waits by his minibus for fuel on Kathmandu's Ring Road. Like many others, he has been waiting days for a much-needed refill.

Rajul Mahnama waits in the line with his minibus. “I have been trying to get fuel for five days,” he tells me. “I’ve been here waiting with my bus all day, and I’m near the front, so I am hoping I will be lucky.”Photo: Patrick Ward

This is the view you want to see the most – the inside of a bus, sparsely packed enough to allow the arm movement required to take a photo. These early morning commuters have been smart enough to travel before rush hour, which sometimes helps. Photo: Patrick Ward

These early morning commuters have been smart enough to travel before rush hour, which sometimes helps. Photo: Patrick Ward

If that’s not possible, why not try the scenic option? Squeeze up together on the roof rack to get a nice view of the surroundings, but be careful to duck your head to avoid overhead power lines. Seriously. Photo: Patrick Ward

If that’s not possible, why not try the scenic option? Squeeze up together on the roof rack to get a nice view of the surroundings, but be careful to duck your head to avoid overhead power lines, or you’re liable to lose your hat, or worse. Seriously. Take it from someone who knows. Photo: Patrick Ward

If sightseeing isn’t on the agenda, there are always other options. This truck carried dozens of commuters into the village of Sangachok in Sindhupalchok. The sheer number of passengers disembarking suggests there are more comfortable ways to travel. Photo: Patrick Ward

If sightseeing isn’t on the agenda, there are always other options. This truck pulled up carrying dozens of commuters into the village of Sangachok in Sindhupalchok, in the wake of several severely overloaded public buses. Photo: Patrick Ward

But at the end of the day, when you see a scene like this one, at the Ekantakuna junction of the Kathmandu Ring Road, it might be time to give up. Perhaps a walk home doesn't sound so bad, after all. <em>Photo: Patrick Ward</em>

But at the end of the day, when you see a scene like this one, at the Ekantakuna junction of the Kathmandu Ring Road, it might be time to give up. Perhaps a walk home doesn’t sound so bad, after all. Photo: Patrick Ward

‘The fuel crisis damaged my business ten times more than the earthquake’

“I am the director of a company operating in the tourism sector. The drafting of the new constitution opened many doors and new opportunities, and we were planning a new beginning. But then came the blockade and fuel crisis. They damaged my business ten times more than the earthquake. No tourists wants to enter the country now. My company is still waiting to receive compensation from the government. We are suffering heavy losses each day, but we still have to pay our banks loans, rent, staff salaries, electricity bills…”

Photo: Mandira Dulal

2015: a year of devastation

The earthquake of 25 April 2015 affected all sections of the Nepali society. What was previously taken for granted — houses, home, family, economic stability — is now viewed with sadness by many. As the new year begins, we look back at the year past, and hopes for the future, through the reflections of some whose lives have changed immeasurably.

‘I am 25 years old. In these 25 years I have never seen a worse situation’

Mandira Dulal

Mandira Dulal. Photo: Patrick Ward

The year was full of pain and difficulties. Every house has got its own sorrowful story, and every Nepalese citizen suffer as we begin the new year. Some suffer from wounds, some were homeless and some have lost their relatives. It was such a situation that I cannot express it in words. Because of the earthquake, the nation bears such economic and physical loss! For a developing nation like Nepal this loss is more than a misfortune.

Dashain and Tihar were spent in tents and zinc houses. Happiness used to bloom in every Nepalese courtyard. But this year these things were replaced by pain, problems and difficulties. In many houses, meat used to be cooked during Dashain, sel and roti was the special dish. But the Indian blockade and fuel crisis didn’t let us cook such food.

The Nepalese were victimised twice, thrice. First, political conflict already existed here. Second, the earthquake made the situation messed up. Finally, India’s blockade and fuel crisis made the situation much worse. The development of the nation has been pushed back 20 years because of all these things. Many youth don’t see a future in this country; I don’t see a career here. The black market has become rooted. Food prices have increased. There is no electricity. Who likes darkness? Nobody.

I wondered how the earthquake victims are spending their cold nights in zinc houses. How are the small babies and old people? They must have hundreds of problems. The blockade issues have shadowed the victims’ issues.

I am 25 years old. In these 25 years I have never seen a worse situation and never faced such difficulties as I faced this year. I wish no any nation or region face such a tragedy as Nepal has had to bear this year. Every nation has the right to live peacefully.

I am worried for my family. As a mother, it was very difficult to protect my two-year-old baby. The quake left me in fear every second. I keep on holding her, my eyes are stuck on her, my mind and heart focused on her. I fear every night when I go to bed. If an earthquake occurs when I am sleeping, what should I do? Where should I run? I couldn’t focus on study or work because of this. The sound from a bus or bike can terrify me.

Failure and loss are the stepping stones to success. Nepalis should take this loss as an opportunity to develop. It is natural platform to recover, and to reconstruct a beautiful Nepal by our own hands and efforts. Each individual should contribute to that.

Mandira Dulal Aftershock Nepal reporter, Tribhuvan University


‘I felt like crying but I didn’t. At that point of time I had to be the strongest’

Parimita Rana, Kathmandu

Paramita Rana. Photo: Namita Rao

I was still sleeping in my bed when the earthquake hit Nepal. I was up the previous night, Friday, till 3am watching movies. I felt a sudden jolt. I woke up confused. My mind did not register immediately that it was an earthquake. Once it did, the fear of death started creeping in. I started crying and I ran to check on my grandmother, who was in the other room. I then pulled out a suitcase and stuffed it with my first aid box, food and clothes, and pulled my grandmother and ran out of the building. To my horror, there were buildings crumbling down.

In our neighbourhood, the community had built a huge tent and we lived together there for a month. We ate boiled potatoes with salt for the first week. Our only source of news was from the radio. Even newspapers weren’t available that week. It was so scary. I saw so much devastation around me. People everywhere had lost their homes and loved ones. I felt really bad. I thought to myself, I have perfectly working arms, legs and limbs, so why not help those in need?

I live outside the valley, where one can find a lot of old Newari houses built of mud and bricks. Most homes were completely destroyed as a result, and the people who survived were badly injured. My neighbour and I came together and bought basic medicines and first aid and distributed it to those in need. I was heartbroken to see all of it. People had lost their wives, their husbands, their grandchildren. I felt like crying but I didn’t, because at that point of time I had to be the strongest.

For the first week I provided medical help. After that I asked my friends to help me out. Our group kept getting bigger, and we then started supplying people with food and rations. Initially, we helped out in the Kathmandu valley. We then went to the remote villages. All around, we saw people traumatised and scared. We made it a point to tell them stories and jokes, and try to make them laugh. The people needed motivation and hope. We distributed aid in Sindhupalchok, Harisiddhi, Bungamati, Gorkha, Godavari, Makwanpur and Nagarkot. We went to so many places that we had earlier not even heard of. Now we know the places and the people too. Our work went on till July. We also made temporary shelters of bamboo and tin roofs that we hope will sustain them at least for two years.

Seeing the gratitude and the smiles on people’s faces when we approached them was the most beautiful feeling. I didn’t know that volunteering would help me so much as an individual. It gave me inner peace and happiness. I felt blessed because they told me, “God bless you”.

Paramita Rana,  Kathmandu | Interview: Namita Rao


‘Against all odds, people discovered new and ingenious ways to survive tragedies’

Preeti A Karna

Preeti A Karna. Photo: Pallavi Payal

It was a truly remarkable year for Nepal. It was remarkable in the tragedies that held us captive for most of the year but also remarkable in teaching us to cope with multiple disasters. The resilience shown by the people of Nepal in the face of natural and political disasters deserve historical remembrance.

Already stumbling from one political impasse to another in the process of a peaceful transition, Nepal was brought to a standstill after the earthquake. Life was threatened with constant aftershocks, and the people were suffering from the loss of almost 9,000 people. In an unprecedented way, the people of Nepal, and especially youths, rose and joined hands to help in every way possible.

In the midst of it all, the Constituent Assembly rushed through a constitution, reasoning that it was important to get that done before focusing its full energy and resources on rehabilitating earthquake survivors, even though a large section of the population was protesting against it. The logic behind this decision is a different story, but the promulgation of the new constitution led to another political disaster that has affected all parts of the country. The state’s apathy and brutal suppression of the protests by the security forces resulted in more than 50 deaths, including policemen, and led to an economic blockade as well as a highly polarised political climate.

While the new coalition government is busy expanding its cabinet and breaking/forming new ministries, the people of Nepal are learning to cope. They are coping with the human loss from both the earthquake and the political crisis, with scarcities of devastating proportions, with the state’s apathy and the ordeals that winter brings in the earthquake-affected areas with no reconstruction or rehabilitation promised to them.

It was a particularly revealing year for me as well. I’ve learnt that, against all odds, people in this country discover new and ingenious ways to survive tragedies and that it is important to do so. I’ve also learnt that, in a country like mine, it will be a long time before the people are respected and served by their representatives.

But there is always hope, and one needs to keep constant vigil over it. Most of all, I’ve learnt that there is immense power in humans to overcome pain, even though it is most often hidden underneath all that despair. Here’s hoping 2016 will be a year of rehabilitation, bridging gaps and keeping promises in Nepal.

Preeti A. Karna | Aftershock Nepal reporter, Kathmandu University


‘All around I saw bodies being carried’

Dorjee Tsering. Photo: Namita Rao

Dorjee Tsering. Photo: Namita Rao

Our building was shaking for more than 40 seconds and we felt we would die for sure. I instantly hugged my mother as I wished to die in her arms. While it was still shaking, we gathered all our strength and rushed downstairs into an open space. After an hour I went to see Dharahara, a very tall tower in the central part of the city, along with my cousin. Somebody had told me that it had fallen down and I wanted to see the extent of the damage for myself. All around I saw bodies being carried and heard a lot of crying. The whole of Kathmandu was in dust in a matter of minutes. After witnessing all of this, I feel like I am living a new life. God gave me one more chance and in this new life I am going to be a happier person.

Dorjee Tsering, Boudha | Interview: Namita Rao


‘Despite the long night, a spark of hope is always there’

Ashma Gautam

Ashma Gautam. Photo: Shristi Shrestha

While taking the first step towards 2016, I realise a long year has gone by. Keeping 2015 in a balance of good and bad results in equilibrium. After all, amid day and night, there is life.

My tragic 2015 started with me bidding farewell. The worst thing that happened in early 2015 was losing the senior-most member of the family. In April 2015, eastern Nepal was hit by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, claiming the lives of around 9,000 people and affecting the life of hundreds of thousands, and affecting the economy of the country. Despite the pain of losing thousands of known and unknown faces in the disaster, the best thing that happened is to belong to the mass of people who witnessed and survived this major earthquake.

The drafting of the constitution then acted as the catalyst for the turmoil in southern Nepal. While a group of people were busy celebrating the completion of the constitution of Nepal with firecrackers — finally, after a 10 year civil war and 10 more years of political instability — Tarai, an equally important region of Nepal, was burning with bullets and floods of blood. This was then followed by an embargo at the Nepal-India border, dropping the economic growth of the country and causing the crisis of petroleum products, cooking gas, day-to-day goods and materials for reconstruction.

As the social, political and economic condition of a country is responsible to set one’s personal life, my life in 2015 revolved around the natural and political disaster. Despite the long night, somewhere, a spark of hope, though hidden, is always there. We can still hope to rise from the rubble, to find the common points and then be at peace.

Ashma Gautam | Aftershock Nepal reporter, Kathmandu University


‘Waiting for others for our wants and desires cannot hold us back’

Raju Tamang in Bahrabise, Sindupalchok

Raju Tamang. Photo: Unnat Sapkota

I was working in the Tatopani village in Sindhupalchok. My friend and me were on our way to have lunch. Suddenly the earthquake struck the area. Our legs were shaking and we could not control our bodies. Many tourists and other people were running around, searching for a way to support themselves. Then there was a huge landslide. A stone fell from the hill and hit my friend on the head. He was dead on the spot. He left us before he could say anything. We ran to an open place called Chauki Danda in Tatopani, where 50 to 60 of us went without food for three or four days. The road was totally blocked, so I could not return back to my home and family.

I pray that day won’t repeat again. I will continue my work and secure my future after the disaster. Always waiting for others for our wants and desires cannot hold us back. My family and me are ready to work hard and sweat to forget the pain of this disaster.

Raju Tamang, Bahrabise | Interview: Unnat Sapkota


‘Due to heavy work and intolerable exertion, I became severely ill’

Ram Hari Adhikari and Suresh Kumar Sarma

Ram Hari Adhikari (left) and Suresh Kumar Sarma (right). Photo: Patrick Ward

The year 2015 was a bitter experience in my life. It gave me pain and sorrow. Not only for me — the whole community did not have a happy ending to the year, either.

For me, it was not a happy year, as I became sick after involving myself in earthquake relief. I was one of the victims of the earthquake. My house in the country got damaged and became uninhabitable. I also felt very horrible aftershocks in Kathmandu. I saw thousands of people suffering from pain, hostility, hunger and insecurity. I realised my responsibility in helping the victims, and moved to the epicentre district, Gorkha, on the day following the earthquake, with a team of 30 people, including my staff and volunteers. After contributing a lot in Gorkha by providing emergency shelter to 8,000 households, I went to Nuwakot after the second biggest shock on 12 May.

Maybe due to heavy work and intolerable exertion for almost a month, I became severely ill with diabetes and high blood pressure, and my kidneys were severely damaged. I had to stay in hospital for 15 days and had to leave all of my team members who were in the field.

I again joined a relief team in Sindhupakchok once I felt quite better. Now, we had to face the blockade by India which resulted in the fuel crisis. Our emergency relief work was severely hampered. However, we achieved getting a new constitution, and hope that it will help us in showing the way towards a peaceful society with progress and prosperity.

All Nepali people, including me, hope that 2016 will help us heal the terrible wounds of the earthquake and the blockade by India. We hope that the relationship between Nepal and India will normalise again, and we will be able to focus on implementing the newly produced constitution. Moreover, we will be able to speed up reconstruction activities in the earthquake affected areas of Nepal.

On a personal note, I hope to be healthier and stronger again, and that I will be able to contribute to society more in the new year.

Ram Hari Adhikari | Relief worker, Kathmandu


‘Power struggles have made the country weaker and weaker’

Last year gave us two different experiences. Pleasure, as we achieved our constitution, but also the trauma of the earthquake. We lost thousands of people within few minutes. Lots of structures were damaged and destroyed. Now, Nepal faces a blockade from India. But the Indian government is blaming it on the internal problems of Nepal.

Over the past two decades, Nepal has faced the challenges of political instability. Power struggles have made the country weaker and weaker. Different -isms and ideologies made national identity more confusing. In a nut shell, over the year we felt different dimensions of life, crisis and consciousness, horror and harmony, sympathy and strength.

Suresh Subedi | Journalist, Kathmandu


‘I sometimes look at the house where she was buried, and can’t stop my tears’

Seti Lamichhane stands in the ruins of her house in Kahvresthali

Seti Lamichhane. Photo: Patrick Ward

I was on my way to cut grass for our cows when the earthquake happened. The earth began moving violently and trees were swinging about heavily .

I found one of my grandsons half-buried in the rubble of our house. We rescued him with the help of the neighbours. My son and other family members were all there. Our house was completely destroyed. All our food and clothes were buried under rubble. But we couldn’t do anything. We just looked at it and cried.

Now we live in shelter of zinc sheets. It is so cold. It’s winter season and we don’t have proper clothes or , enough food. I’m very much concerned for my grandchildren. There would be no reason to me to live if my grandchildren had died in that earthquake. They are my everything.

On the day of the earthquake, my friend and I had gone to cut grass. She went home to get some rope and I was waiting for her by the side of the road. She never came back. She got buried when her house came down. I lost my best friend. She was like my sister. We grew up together from childhood. I sometimes look at the house where she was buried, and I can’t stop my tears.

After the earthquake, I did not eat for three days. I got sick for more than a month. But we have to continue with our lives. My children and grandchildren are helping me to overcome. I think that wherever my friend is, she must be happy, because I believe that she is with god. I try to bear it because I know her memory will never die. No one can part me from it.

Seti Lamichhane, Kavresthali | Interview: Enika Rai


‘We are forgetting the lessons we learnt from the quake’

Unnat Sapkota

Unnat Sapkota. Photo: Enika Rai

Looking back is still painful. Every day seems terrifying. Remembering 25 April is hard. The lessons that we learnt were more than the pages of any text book.

That day I was at my cousin’s home, in Basundhara, Kathmandu. It was Saturday, our day off, and my mind was eagerly demanding fun. After having lunch, five or six family members were having a discussion. Some others were busy watching TV. Suddenly, everything started shaking. We knew it was an earthquake, and we searched for the miraculous chance to escape from the house.

When we reached the door, the magnitude was so heavy that we were struggling to stay upright. A motorbike fell down right ahead of us and blocked the way. One of us managed to push it away and we reached the open space. A girl, around 13 or 14, was crying and shouting for help from the terrace of the same house. We knew she had lost the key and was stuck. Me and my elder brother did our best to break the lock of the door. We rescued her, despite big aftershocks.

We are forgetting the lessons that we learnt from the quake, like it was nothing to us. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was built after eight months, and the CEO of the NRA was appointed in the last week of December. It’s winter season, and the government decided to give $100 to earthquake victims to protect themselves from the cold. But the distribution has not been effective. When will reconstruction end? When will people live their lives as before? When will these decades of political instability end? When will we be citizens of a prosperous nation?

There is a saying, “Don’t lose your hope until you breathe the last.” It may take time, but we will live our lives as we used to on 24 April.

Unnat Sapkota | Aftershock Nepal reporter, Kathmandu University

Earthquake survivors face dangerous winter as Nepal relief runs out of fuel

Submerged in the political wrangling over its new constitution and the furore surrounding the fuel shortage in Nepal lies an imminent, far severe crisis for the thousands of earthquake survivors living in the higher reaches of the Himalayan nation.

Winter is coming and they have no real shelter.

“We are in a race against time to reach 84,000 people with vital supplies before snow sets in,” says Iolanda Jacquemet of the World Food Programme, which leads the United Nations Logistics Cluster, the agency responsible for coordinating relief operations in the country. “Earthquake-affected populations at high altitudes will be cut off from the world in about 3-4 weeks.”

In the last fortnight, across Nepal, earthquake relief has suffered severely. Protests by ethnic groups in the Tarai region near the Indian border over their underrepresentation in Nepal’s newly enacted constitution resulted in a pile-up of supply trucks from India, leading to a severe fuel shortage in the country. The Dashain festival, when most Nepalis travel home to celebrate with families, began yesterday, and has accentuated the need for mobility, placing further pressure on the already squeezed resources available for relief work.

“We have used the last drop of diesel available to distribute food,” says Jacquemet. “Fuel for choppers will expire in one week. We are 30 per cent late on our distributions as of today.”

The situation is particularly serious for those in the hilly, remote areas of Gorkha and Sindhupalchok, where temperatures dip to below zero. Supplies can only reach these communities through a combination of off-road vehicles, porters and mules. WFP has one month’s worth of food relief supplies ready on the ground. But the lack of diesel has meant distributions to some 224,000 people have been severely disrupted, says Jacquemet.

Lily Thapa, Women's Human Rights

Women for Human Rights founder Lily Thapa is concerned her organisation will not be able to finish distributing supplies before the winter sets in. Photo: Patrick Ward

Survivors face the prospect of a winter in open tents in the lower reaches as well. Sudarshan Shrestha from Save the Children spoke of how his organisation had promised goods and supplies to several communities before Dashain, and how that commitment could not be kept. If relief work does not pick up momentum quickly, he says, “we could could end up with a double humanitarian crisis”.

In Chhoprak, a remote village in the Gorkha district, where 1,504 of the 1,531 houses were destroyed by the earthquake, the Nepali NGO Women for Human Rights faces a similar, broken promise. Most households live in temporary shelters without proper windows or doors, and WHR is concerned that supplies such as solar lights, winter clothes and blankets will not get dispersed in time.

“We have distributed 8,000 items over the past two months,” says WHR founder Lily Thapa. “We still have 10,000 more to distribute.”

The fuel crisis has also pushed up the cost of distributing relief for NGOs. “Usually the private vehicles we hire to take goods from Kathmandu to Gorkha cost around NPR 22,000 [approximately £138],” says Bisheshta Shrestha, an aid worker at WHR. “That has doubled right now. Local transport in Gorkha is even more expensive.”

Further, NGOs face the prospect of losing donor support if they do not meet agreed objectives. “If you don’t finish your work within the deadline, you have to find another funding source,” says Ram Hari Adhikari, who works for Mission East, a Danish NGO. “It’s the same story for all the NGOs.”

Adhikari works in Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, building community toilets and hygiene facilities. That work has been hampered by the unavailability of cement, sand, and other construction materials. In addition, the fuel crisis has had severe economic and social impacts on the communities in the district.

In Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, thousands still live in temporary shelters. This is one such camp in Bahrabise, close to the Chinese border. Photo: Patrick Ward

In Sindhupalchok, the district worst affected by the earthquake, thousands still live in temporary shelters. This is one such camp in Bahrabise, close to the Chinese border. Photo: Patrick Ward

“Many people working in the transportation industry are jobless at the moment. Those selling goods which come from India, like milk and vegetables, are also suffering,” Adhikari says. “After the earthquake, schools closed for two months. Now, schools have been disrupted again, so children can’t finish their courses this academic year.”

In the southern plains of the Tarai region too, NGOs are facing issues. Relief has been disrupted by the turbulence caused by the Madhesi and Tharu protesters calling for amendments to Nepal’s new constitution. An EU delegation to Nepal last week issued a statement expressing concern about the effects of the current situation on “the poorest segments of the population, including in the Tarai”. General strikes have crippled everyday life in the Tarai for the past few months; curfews were imposed and many schools suspended classes.

In the past weeks we’ve had to temporarily close operations in six districts, in the interests of the safety of our staff,” says Sudarshan Shrestha. The Nepal Red Cross faced several incidents of vandalism. In one incident, an ambulance was set on fire and an injured patient killed.

The UN Logistics Cluster has now requested the government for priority access to fuel. But Rameshwar Dangal, head of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Disaster Management Division, is doubtful it will be approved immediately.

“We have a huge crisis due to Dashain,” he says. “I think the government will prioritise providing fuel to public transport and private vehicles.”

At this point, like the rest of the nation, aid agencies can only wait for the situation to improve. But time is running out fast. “Even if the situation improved tomorrow,” says Sudarshan Shrestha, “it would take us a week or more to get back on our feet.”

How India’s Unofficial Blockade Is Affecting Post-Earthquake Nepal

The day I arrived in Kathmandu, the Nepal government had just announced a quota system limiting the number of vehicles on the roads in response to the fuel crisis. Very few private vehicles were plying. Buses were completely packed. Taxis were charging three or four times the usual rate.

I had read about the protests taking place near the Indian border over Nepal’s new constitution even as I left England. I knew about the blockade of supply trucks at the border, and, in an abstract manner, about the fuel shortage that was beginning to grip the country. But I had little idea how much the situation was affecting everyday life across a country struggling to get on its feet after a devastating earthquake—and how angry, and upset, Nepalis were with their ‘Big Brother’ across the border.

“We are trying to put our house in order and a big neighbour has come to disturb it,” Dr Uddhab Pyakurel, a political sociologist at the Kathmandu University, was to tell me soon. “A small section of Nepali society has always been critical of India’s influence. But now, more people are feeling this way.”

India’s role in the fuel crisis has been extensively reported, and it would be difficult to find a Nepali who believes New Delhi’s claim that it was concern for the truck drivers’ safety that was behind the pile-up of supply vehicles at the border on the Indian side. Every person I spoke to in Kathmandu seemed to believe, perhaps with some justification, that India had effected an unofficial economic blockade to pressurise Nepal into editing certain provisions in its brand new constitution—specifically, those relating to the demands of the Madhesi people in the border region, with whom India shares strong cultural ties.

It is not surprising, then, that many in Kathmandu are fuming. The ordinary Nepali, says Anup Ojha, a journalist at the Kathmandu Post, feels betrayed. “We are feeling humiliated,” he said. “It shows that India can interfere in each and every part of our politics.”

It is not just the politics that people are upset about. The blockade has translated into everyday hardships for everyone here, to the point that some in Kathmandu feel it eclipses even the situation they faced after the earthquake. “This crisis is more troublesome than the earthquake,” said Munni Pandey, a mother I met in Pattan, on the outskirts of the capital city. With few taxis plying, Munni was frustrated at her inability to take her children to their schools on time; at home, she was about to run out of cooking gas.

Photo of Ramila

Ramila (right) has run out of cooking gas and is no position to cook for her family of 12. Photo: Namita Rao

Kalyan Tamang, a bus driver who had been waiting in a fuel queue all morning, was more measured in his response. People were moving on from the adversities caused by the earthquake, he said, and trying to rebuild their lives. But the fuel shortage has hit them hard. Sangam Lama, a bus conductor, put it simply:

“If the buses don’t work, I don’t get my salary.”


A WEEK AFTER I reached Kathmandu, there were news reports that India had instructed its officials at the border to lift the undeclared blockade. The people I spoke to that day were cautiously optimistic that an end was in sight. “We are slightly relieved,” said Surya Dhungana, “but we cannot fully rely on that because we have been facing a similar situation for the past 30 years.”

Behind the negativity colouring that sentiment is the fact that the reprieve at the border is yet to alleviate the crisis in any tangible manner. Although trucks carrying fuel and other essential goods have begun to trickle in (or so I read in the newspapers), for the ordinary Nepali, nothing has really changed yet. The quota system is still in place for public transport and government-owned vehicles, which are allowed on the roads only on alternate days. Private vehicles received a slight relief when the ban on fuel sales was lifted for just one day. But in truth, the situation appears worse than it was, with the government now slashing the fuel quota for public vehicles.

Many in Kathmandu are also concerned about the upcoming Dashain, the biggest festival of the year, which lasts 15 days. There is a sizeable population in the city from other parts of the country, and traditionally, most people return home for the festival. But with the fuel rationing in place, transportation will be difficult to find.

For more than a week, schools have been running classes only on alternate days. Without fuel for generators, which are needed to tide over the prolonged power cuts caused by Nepal’s electricity shortage problem, businesses are seriously suffering. According to the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the cumulative effects of the two months of strikes, blockades and protests over the new constitution has cost the economy $1 billion.

Commuters sit on the roof of a bus in Kathmandu during during the fuel crisis.

Commuters travelling on bus roofs are a common sight in Kathmandu. Photo: Naomi Mihara

THE CRISIS HAS also severely disrupted earthquake relief work. Much of the cement, steel, glass and zinc sheets needed for reconstruction is imported from India. “These cannot be accessed by villagers unless there is a smooth transportation facility,” said Dr Pyakurel. “More than that, earthquake-affected villages need a large number of skilled and semi-skilled workers, many of whom come from the bordering cities of India. Given the situation, Indian workers may not feel safe to come to the hilly districts to carry out reconstruction.”

The biggest hindrance to relief work is, not surprisingly, the lack of mobility. “We are in a race against time,” said Iolanda Jaquemet of the World Food Programme, which has had to halt many of its operations because its delivery trucks are out of diesel. “Earthquake affected populations at high altitudes will be cut off from the world by snow in about 3-4 weeks.”

“It’s the same story for all NGOs,” said Ram Hari, who works for Mission East, a Danish NGO. His organisation faces the prospect of losing donor money because they would now not be able to finish distributing relief materials to meet a mid-October deadline. This also means that vulnerable families in Sindupalchok—the district worst-affected by the earthquake, where many are still living in tents—will not get the aid they have been promised.

Importantly, the issue that has spurred the blockade and fuel crisis still remains unresolved. Talks between the government and parties representing the Madhesis—the main group protesting their under-representation in the new constitution—are taking place, and the government has agreed to some amendments. But there is still much ground to be covered.

“In the Madhesh, there is palpable anger against Kathmandu,” said Daulat Jha, a Madhesi political analyst. “Right now, the polarisation is at its peak and will take time to decrease.”


IN THE CAPITAL, though, there is much solidarity on display. People have grouped together on social media to voice their anger at India through hashtags such as #IndiaBlockadesNepal, #BackOffIndia and #DonateOilToIndianEmbassy. Residents have also resorted to sharing rides to get around. Carpool Kathmandu, a Facebook page to coordinate travel in and around the city, has now amassed more than 94,000 members.

“From one point of view, the situation has helped unite Nepalese people,” said Sagun Khanal, an accountant. “They are ready to help each other.”


Public buses queuing for petrol at Gayatri Devi petrol pump, Patan, last Thursday.

Public buses queuing up at a petrol station in Patan last Thursday. Photo: Naomi Mihara

There is also a feeling that Nepal needs to rely less on India. As of now, more than 60 per cent of Nepal’s imports are from India and this over-reliance, many in Kathmandu say, makes their country vulnerable to manipulations. They point to 1989, when India imposed an official blockade that lasted 13 months, thought to be an attempt to punish Nepal for buying weapons from China. “Our situation is probably worse now than it was in the past, because we consume so many goods that are imported from India,” a Kathmandu resident said.

There have been calls for Nepal to reach out to other neighbours, especially China. The road to the northern Tatopani border point, buried by landslides after the earthquake, was hurriedly cleared and reopened last week. Last week, the government-owned Nepal Oil Corporation issued a tender for the import of petroleum products from any country through any medium, hoping to break more than 40 years of Indian monopoly as the sole supplier.

Besides the anti-India sentiments, many Nepalis appeared increasingly frustrated with their own politicians’ lack of action, foresight and ability to negotiate diplomatically. Following the promulgation of the constitution on September 20, Nepal’s parliament is attempting to form a new government. There is a sense that this has been prioritised over reaching a solution to the crisis.

“They have behaved very immaturely and disrespectfully,” said Dr Sudhamshu Dahal, an assistant professor at the Kathmandu University. “They should start putting people at the centre of their negotiations.”

Others are angry at Madhesi politicians and protest leaders for inciting unrest, rather than negotiating. “I understand that people in the Tarai are unhappy with the constitution,” a student said. “But this is affecting everyone’s lives.” There are also many who plead the cause for unity. In Ratna Park, a group protesting India’s actions held signs referring to the three regions of Nepal: “Himal [mountain], Pahad [hill], Tarai [plains]: no one is an outsider”.

Although anti-India sentiment in Nepal is high at this point, the India-Nepal relationship is not irreparably damaged. “Many people feel doubts about whether the kind of relationship that the two countries have had until now should continue,” said Dr Pyakurel. “Still, there is room to be engaged. But India needs to undo this blockage as soon as possible and allow Nepal to deal with its domestic problems on its own.”

Thankfully, the animosity felt towards the Indian nation does not seem to extend towards the Indian people. “We share a familiar culture, landscape, lifestyle… there are so many things that can bring Nepali and Indian people together,” said blogger Siromani Dhungana. “We have shared a special bond in the past, and I believe that will continue in the future.”

Additional reportage: Namita Rao, Ritu Panchal and Unnat Sapkota.