Geopolitics and fuel queues: postcard from inside ‘blockaded’ Nepal

 Simon Rushton

 The traffic is quiet in Kathmandu. Or at least the traffic is much quieter than normal. Private cars are banned from refueling so people have taken to walking, unable to afford the spiraling cost of taxis. The drivers of those taxis queue outside petrol stations for days in the hope that a fuel delivery will eventually arrive. Some tell me that they have queued for two days for fuel, followed by one day of taking fares. Taxi rides cost around five times as much as normal yesterday. Today, the multiplier will likely be higher.

Nepal is struggling through a crippling fuel crisis, the result of the halting of imports from India. The country is almost entirely dependent on its southern neighbour for fuel and many other goods. Almost nothing is getting through.

All of this stems from ongoing disputes over the country’s new constitution – finally adopted by the Constituent Assembly on September 20th after almost a decade of arguments and negotiations. The new constitution is the centerpiece of the new political settlement that follows Nepal’s civil war of 1996-2006. All of the three major political parties eventually signed up to it – 90% of the Constituent Assembly – even though for many it was a compromise on their original aims.

India – always a powerful influence on Nepal’s domestic politics – is particularly unhappy with the outcome, believing that the constitution discriminates against the Madhesi people (of Indian origin) living close to the border. India’s attempts to urge changes to the text of the draft constitution were rebuffed. The Madhesi themselves have protested angrily ever since it was adopted, taking to the streets and occupying the border crossings. Recent reports claim that 42 deaths have so far resulted from the sometimes-violent demonstrations.

Whether or not there actually is a blockade in place depends on who you ask. The Indian side of the story is that there is no blockade: that the violent protests inside Nepal are making it unsafe for Indian trucks to enter the country. The view from most of the people I meet in Kathmandu is very clearly the opposite: India is deliberately throwing its weight around in an attempt to once again get its own way in Nepal’s domestic affairs. There is growing anti-Indian sentiment here in the capital – just a couple of days ago I happened upon a demonstration of students protesting against what they see as India’s bullying tactics. Feelings are running high.

More walking and higher taxi fares are for now relatively minor inconveniences in the context of far more serious problems that are starting to emerge from the stoppage of cross-border traffic. The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry have claimed that the economic damage so far has been over $1 billion – more than the effects of the devastating earthquake that struck the country earlier in the year. I’ve heard people say that medicine supplies are running low in some areas. International Organisations and NGOs are suffering the effects too – cancelling travel plans and trying to eke out their remaining fuel stocks. Gradually the country is grinding to a halt.

Nepalis I speak to have a range of solutions to the immediate and long-term problems created by the country’s dependence on India. But by far the most common opinion I have heard is that the answer lies with China. Road links to China were destroyed by the earthquake, but efforts are ongoing to rebuild them. Once those roads reopen, many believe that China can be an alternative trading partner, ending Nepal’s reliance on his powerful southern neighbor and giving it leverage in New Delhi that is has previously lacked. Some say that China has offered to build new roads into the country in exchange for Nepal buying its fuel.

One of the poorest countries on earth, and trapped between two giant neighbours, Nepal’s future development will depend much on securing external assistance and cooperation. Attempting to play India and China off against one another, some think, could be an opportunity for the country to challenge the established power-relations of dependency. Others see it as a dangerous game.

It has been interesting to hear how many people believe that Nepal would be better off throwing in its lot with China. China, this narrative goes, is at least open about what it wants: in exchange for trade and development assistance it wants economic access. China is in it purely for the profit. Unlike India, people often say, China has no interest in interfering in Nepal’s domestic politics. India’s motives are much less clear to many – and its history of engagement/interference (depending on your point of view) leads many to be suspicious.

At least this is the view from here in Kathmandu. In the Terai (the lowland plains of southern Nepal where the Madhesis predominate), the view is of course very different. The Madhesis have always looked towards India for protection, and would be likely to strongly resist any reorientation towards China.

So the struggle carries on, and the fuel still doesn’t come. But it is the longer-term struggles that may be even more significant for the country’s future. How Nepal navigates its way between these two giant neighbours is an extreme challenge for both its international relations and domestic politics. Nobody seems to know how it can manage that yet. For now, people are just desperately trying to find even a few drops of fuel in order to go to work or to school. Right now, Nepalis live geopolitics everyday.

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