Nepal, an avoidable battleground

As Nepal cynically plays off India against China, it is India that has more to lose from a prolonged crisis—for the simple reason that bonds between people of India and Nepal are so close


India has emerged as an easy bait as the people of this landlocked nation find themselves pinned to the wall, staring at a hard winter with a looming sense of helplessness as neighbours India and China fight it out for political control. Photo: AP
India has emerged as an easy bait as the people of this landlocked nation find themselves pinned to the wall, staring at a hard winter with a looming sense of helplessness as neighbours India and China fight it out for political control. Photo: AP

An upper-middle-class woman of Indian origin speaks of her frustration at having to cope with daily power cuts of up to 10 hours in Nepal, while a business executive counts his losses—in man days, profit and potentially in his career graph.

A notice board in a luxury hotel in Kathmandu apologizes with impeccable courtesy for failing to serve its trickle of guests tandoori roti and naan because of power cuts. A cabbie lets fly at Indians with a torrent of pent-up emotion.

Power cuts in Nepal are a well-known and decades-old problem, but three months after the start of border protests against a new Constitution crippled business and trade, it is India that is being blamed for much of this nation’s ills. Ignoring the fact that India supplies electricity to Nepal, anti-India sentiment is growing among a section of Nepalis.

India has emerged as an easy bait as the people of this landlocked nation find themselves pinned to the wall, staring at a hard winter with a looming sense of helplessness as neighbours India and China fight it out for political control.

“Nepalis are patient and resilient—the question is for how long?” said an Indian-origin female entrepreneur married to a retired Nepali civil servant. “If life is so difficult here in Kathmandu, you can imagine the hardship up in the hills, where there is no fuel.” As with many others quoted in this article, she asked to remain anonymous.

No matter where you go in Kathmandu, a sense of deepening crisis pervades. Shops shut at midday as the first of the day’s several power cuts kicks in, lending Nepal’s tourism-dependent capital a look of resignation.

The blockade by the Madhesi community living in the Terai or southern plains region of Nepal began in September. Violence erupted amid mounting protests against a Constitution that was rejected as an effort at gerrymandering provincial borders in order to disenfranchise the majority plains people from political power.

Many commentators in not only India but also Kathmandu describe the Constitution as a charter favouring the upper-caste elite from the northern half of the nation that borders China.

The Terai region that is populated by the Madhesi, Tharu and several aboriginal communities, runs along Nepal’s border with the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. After centuries of co-mingling, many have families in India. Together, the Madhesi and Tharu—victims of a history of disenfranchisement (unbelievably, they used to need a permit to enter Kathmandu)—form 70% of the Terai population.

The new Constitution carves Nepal into seven provinces, but gives the Terai province only eight districts, the remaining 14 going to the hill districts. The exercise, according to Hari Bansh Jha, executive director of the Centre for Economic and Technical Studies in Nepal, has “the sole of purpose of converting the local people into a minority”.

The Constitution provides for 165 constituencies but the gerrymandering of boundaries means 100 of them will go to people living in the hills and mountains. On the other hand, the people of Terai—the region, not the emasculated “province”—get only 65 seats, although they form the majority of the nation’s population.

The fault clearly is the Nepali government’s. Yet, increasingly, it is India that is being blamed, at least in the capital Kathmandu, where government leaders have accused India of orchestrating a trade blockade, something that has been denied by India.

“The neighbouring country is bullying us on one hand and raising issues of impunity on the other,” Nepal’s Communist Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli told journalists in November. “Nepal is currently at the receiving end of an unofficial blockade. But this is the time for us to find an alternative.”

True to his words, he despatched his deputy prime minister Kamal Thapa to China on Christmas eve, leading a delegation to follow up on an agreement under which Beijing has pledged to supply one-third of Nepal’s fuel requirements.

The delegation, at a meeting with vice-president Li Yuanchao, also asked China for a waiver of duties on the sale of fuel to Nepal.

“Nepal now wants transit facility from not only India but also from China,” Nepal’s ambassador to China, Mahesh Maskey, was quoted as saying in the local media. However, transporting fuel by road through the perilous Tibetan plateau, including earthquake-damaged portions, will not be an easy challenge to overcome.

There will also be likely repercussions on the Tibetan exile population in Nepal for China will want to cement its gains.

All of Nepal’s border posts are with India, the entry points for all its fuel supplies, a fact that lends anecdotal credence to the charges against India. Every Nepali on the street knows that the Constitution is deeply flawed, echoing a view held among others by Western diplomats in New Delhi. Yet, there is a sense among ordinary Nepalis that it is they who are being punished for the mistakes of their elected leaders.

“When a child grows up, the parents should let go of it,” said an upper caste cab driver from the hills. He was born in the Terai—the result, in all probability, of previous Nepali regimes’ policy of settling hills people in the Terai with offers of land.

Anger is boiling over also because the blockade began just months after Nepal suffered a series of earthquakes in April and May, killing some 9,000 people, injuring 23,000 and making hundreds of thousands homeless.

“It’s one thing after another, as if there is no end to our problems,” said the Indian owner of a leather garments store in an upscale shopping street. “I have a good mind to move my business to India.”

The blockade hasn’t just hit local life, it’s made things difficult for major projects between India and Nepal. The launch of the first India-Nepal electricity transmission line has had to be pushed back by several months. The work would have been completed in July, but five foundations, nine transmission towers and 10km of transmission lines on the Nepali side are yet to be built, according to people familiar with the issue. As construction material is held up in India, costs, too, have mounted.

Meanwhile, the shortage of liquid petroleum gas has sparked rioting at distribution centres. Senior government and public sector executives from the oil industry in Nepal have been arrested for alleged involvement in the black market in fuel.

Although fuel shortages have forced schools to shut down in parts of the country, operators are also able to freely procure fuel in the black market. “I just call up a contact and I get the petrol delivered,” said a taxi driver. How? “In jerry cans.”

As the Nepali government cynically plays off India against China, it is India that has more to lose from a prolonged crisis—for the simple reason that the bonds between the people of India and Nepal are so close.

Some in the valley say New Delhi should try and persuade protesters to allow, at the very least, a temporary respite as a gesture of goodwill to the people of Nepal.

“We all know (prime minister Narendra) Modi can do this if he wants. People will not say ‘no’ to him,” said a Nepali business executive. It is also true that powerful leaders are better able to stand up to hawks.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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