Letter from Nepal: Blockade lifted, but tensions remain high

People queuing for fuel in Bhairahawa, Nepal (2005)

People queuing for fuel in Bhairahawa, Nepal, 2015

Earlier this month, ethnic minority groups in Nepal called to a halt a four-month blockade they had been enforcing on the main border crossing with India in an attempt to relieve the devastating humanitarian shortages in the country. At the same time, they promised to continue protesting against the newly ratified constitution in Nepal.

What caused the blockade in the first place and how will these grievances affect peace and social cohesion in Nepal now it has been lifted?

Last year, two major earthquakes struck Nepal and led to a serious humanitarian crisis, causing economic losses worth half of the country’s GDP. And the more recent political turmoil on its southern border created a literal economic impasse, affecting the daily lives of rich and poor alike, and greatly disrupting relief efforts.

Nepal is a landlocked country and is dependent on India for 90% of its imports. During the blockade, there were severe shortages of fuel, medicine and other essential supplies. A gas cylinder used to cost 1,400 Nepali rupees (about US$13), but during the blockade prices soared up to 10,000 Nepali rupees. Even these have not been easily available – driving many Nepalis to use environmentally damaging alternatives to cook, such as firewood, setting back years of hard work in forest conservation. With the black market booming, humanitarian assistance for earthquake victims is now costing much more than it did before the economic blockade was first enforced in September 2015.

This blockade was initiated by the Madhesis, an ethnic minority group inhabiting the southern region of Nepal, as a way of protesting against the new constitution in the country. Madhesis claim this constitution, which hopes to conclude a peace process that has been ongoing since November 2006, has in fact carved boundaries to weaken marginalised communities and supports the political status quo. Madhesis are not the only group that have a problem with the new constitution. Women's groups and campaigners also say it discriminates against Nepali women already living in a patriarchal society. For example, under the new constitution it will be difficult for a single mother to pass her citizenship to her child, whereas a Nepali father can pass on his citizenship regardless of the nationality of the mother.

An added dimension to the blockade is the negative sentiment among Nepali officials and most Nepali people, mainly belonging to the northern region, against the Indian government, whom they believe took the blockade as an excuse to effectively impose and prolong it for its own interests. They consider this as having undermined the sovereignty of Nepal and its right to self-determination as a landlocked state.

This quagmire has given birth to a new narrative of ultra-nationalism and affected the Madhesi movement’s legitimate concerns and the role of the government to accommodate all grievances. India has repeatedly denied these allegations and instead pointed to the security concerns at the Nepali side of the border, advising its freighters and carriers not to cross it.

70% of Nepal’s trade is conducted with India and the majority of its imports are brought through India. With the trade points blocked for four months, Nepal’s economy suffered hugely, with sectors ranging from education, tourism and agriculture incurring an estimated loss of US$5 billion – almost equal to the rebuilding costs in the aftermath of last April’s earthquakes.

During that period, hospitals ran out of essential drugs and supplies, and vital social services were disrupted. Aid agencies were also not able to secure fuel, meaning those living in the areas worst hit by the earthquakes didn’t get the relief items they needed to prepare for the winter.

This geopolitical crisis has the potential to adversely affect stability and social cohesion in the country in the long run. Many disenchanted Madhesi youth believe that being continuously marginalised by the state will give rise to extreme voices, including growing support for independence. And many Nepalis are worried that Indian support for the Madhesi movement will interfere in the dialogue process and undermine Nepal’s sovereignty.

While the blockade has been lifted, these issues that led to the stalemate over the past four months are far from resolved. It is therefore vital that dialogue continues between these different parties. This must also happen at the regional level between governments in Nepal, India and neighbouring countries if peace is to be sustained in the region and Nepal is to fully recover from last year’s devastating earthquakes.

Photo © Graham Bland (Creative Commons)