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

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.

‘We want to continue with relief in Nepal, we want to do a lot, but the process needs to be made easier’

The aftershocks are dying out now in Nepal and, for most people, the initial danger is over. But there are still thousands living in temporary shelters, struggling for basic necessities. With the monsoon retreating, and in the context of a new political appetite for reconstruction, there is hope that now the country can move forward to a more durable future.

One person who has been involved in relief work in Nepal from the very beginning is Ramon Magsaysay winner Anshu Gupta. Gupta, who won the prestigious award for his exemplary social work in July 2015, is the founder of Goonj, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to provide clothing and other essentials to the poorer sections of Indian society. In April, Gupta had led Goonj’s relief efforts in Nepal in what was the group’s first foray into international aid work. In this interview with Ankita Mishra, Gupta speaks about his plans for Nepal, bureaucratic hurdles, and the extent of infrastructure reconstruction that is needed.

On raising aid for relief efforts in Nepal:

Raising aid and relief materials was not a challenge, as people in India have faith in Goonj and the work we do. And in times of disasters, there is no dearth of people willing to help. Donations, both monetary and material, came in from all parts of the country, and we certainly appreciated the exceptional quality of some of the materials that were sent in.

On coordinating aid efforts in Nepal:

Nepal has quite a few Ashoka fellows who are doing a good job. Some of them knew us, knew me personally, and the organisation, from earlier. We worked with all the possible Ashoka fellows, in Sindhupalchok, Gorkha, Barpak, Dading and many other areas, and we also worked with many other voluntary aid organisations. Instead of doing it directly, we conducted aid work only through local organisations that were registered before the disaster, as per the rules formulated by the local government. While we did go there, to supervise and deliver aid, we coordinated efforts on the ground with the local organisations.

On reaching affected areas in remote parts of Nepal:

We were able to travel extensively with the help of local communities, although it was particularly risky in some areas. Already tough terrain was made even more difficult by frequent landslides, with many villages completely cut off. Aid was transported to these places through choppers hired by other organisations, and we provided the material to be transported. We told the local organisations not to spend money on material aid since that was something we could take care of effectively, and instead asked them to spend it on hiring choppers so that things could be reached to remote places where aid was needed the most. This system worked well, and served to increase our reach. We deployed 45 fully loaded trucks of absolutely need-based material. Hardly anything has gone there which is of no use to the people or the culture there, because our work revolves around material, so we do understand those cultural and geographical sensitivities. We are a core believer of the principle that you should not give something that people don’t need.

On volunteerism in Nepal:

We worked with a lot of new sets of volunteers. I think that is really, really beautiful about Nepal. The kind of volunteerism that we saw was unprecedented, and it remained active for very long. The youth were really dedicated and passionate, reaching out to the extremely needy areas, and devoted their full time without worrying about their jobs or their personal safety. This was immensely encouraging to see. We made sure to support these volunteer groups, which are a bit more unstructured than the other more established organisations. But we knew that they were very passionate about helping fellow Nepalis and could reach out to the remote and affected parts of Nepal.

A view of Sankhu, one of the villages that suffered severe destruction in the Nepal earthquake. Photo: Pushkala Aripaka

A view of Sankhu, a village in the Kathmandu valley, that suffered severe destruction. Photo: Pushkala Aripaka

On bureaucratic hurdles:

The Nepali government needs to be more open to support… there’s lots of bureaucratic hiccups and long series of permissions required. Agencies like ours with lots of resources, we can generate more, and people are willing to provide support, but government processes proved to be major hurdles at times. Initially, our trucks that contained relief materials were stopped at the border and sent to the Nepal Transport Corporation, and accessing our own aid became a huge challenge. Trucks bound for specific areas, and aid designated for particular local organisations, had no surety of reaching the specified destinations unless we actively tracked it. We subsequently posted two of our people on the border to manage the chaos surrounding the clearance of trucks, which ideally should have been streamlined by the local systems in place.

Another challenge was getting aid to areas through the suggested system of Community Building Organisations (CBOs) in Nepal’s towns and villages. The CBOs were already inundated with various jobs and responsibilities in light of the disaster. Therefore, it was becoming increasingly impossible for them to handle everything.

The most befuddling aspect of the entire ordeal was the fact that we were asked to pay custom duties and tax for the aid we were bringing into Nepal. It is sad if people spend so much of money buying something, putting in so much effort, working day and night, and distributing aid free of cost, but end up paying such huge customs duties at the border, even for aid. How many people will end up paying 20-25% duty and VAT when with the same money you can do so much more?

We want to continue participating in relief efforts in Nepal, we want to do a lot, but the process needs to be made easier. Presently, the process is such that you have to first set up an MoU with a local Nepali aid organisation, then get the approval for aid work in certain areas from the local Public Works Committees and welfare councils in Nepal. Once this approval comes through, you have to apply to the Central Board of Direct Taxation (CBDT) in India. CBDT will subsequently send the application to the Indian Embassy in Nepal. The Indian Embassy, on approving the application, will send it to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in India. The MEA will then forward the approval to the CBDT, and the CBDT will finally convey the same to you. The process is so long-drawn and complicated that even if the application comes through successfully, it would have possibly taken three months or longer. In emergency situations where immediate action needs to be taken, this hinders efforts to reach timely help to affected areas. And if any one agency, any one office in Nepal or in India has some kind of objection over a single, even miniscule point, the entire thing will fall apart.

When people and countries are willing to send aid, which is very much required right now because it is a large-scale disaster which needs a lot of support to mitigate, the processes involved should be less complicated. It is true, however, that the government officials were quite cooperative in many areas, and certainly all aid work would not be possible without official support. However, the bottlenecks within bureaucratic and government processes need to be removed in order to increase the efficiency of the aid delivery process. And this problem is not only endemic to Nepal, it happens everywhere. “You come and we’ll approve”, simple as this approach is, does not happen anywhere in the world, even during times of disasters.

On the situation in Nepal, what needs to be done:

The situation is extremely bad, with many villages having experienced complete and utter devastation. There is very little left in so many areas. Rampant migration and a whole lot of other problems still exist in Nepal. In any case, whether it is India or Nepal, we are not very rich countries; we have rich parts of the country, and then we have large parts that are poor. We need to rebuild houses, schools. Not just infrastructure, we need to rebuild an entire schooling system. Even a single pencil is needed… the disaster is of that level. It has brought everything to zero. Infrastructure rebuilding is certainly needed because until and unless those things are restored, Nepal will take much longer to come back on its feet. However, infrastructure rebuilding is a large-scale operation; the Nepali government, with the help of much bigger agencies, needs to do it.

On resilient Nepalis:

In countries like ours [India and Nepal], we have very resilient people; we learn how to survive. People like us, if we had to stand in the rain for two days, I don’t know whether we’d survive or not, but thousands of people in both countries know how to survive. If you live in a tin shed located on shaky land, you still go to school, you still go to work, you still do whatever you need to in order to survive. The positive thing about the whole operation was that the people of Nepal are very resilient, and their determination to persevere despite all odds was inspiring. It is in times of disasters that the true strength and character of a people are revealed, and Nepal was no exception.

On lessons on complacency:

India is also a very disaster prone country where disasters like the one in Nepal can, and have occurred. One thing that we need to be really mindful of as a nation is that nothing happens in this country in the name of urgency. We tend to wait for things to happen before we act. The disaster in Nepal was made much more worse than otherwise due to the faulty and inadequate structures that were built to house people. We must understand the importance of being cautious and acting fast, of being proactive rather than reactive.

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