Nepal has been brought to a standstill after India imposed an “unofficial economic blockade,” according to officials in Kathmandu, following a row over its new constitution.
Hundreds of trucks and tankers carrying everyday supplies have been halted at the Indian border, preventing them from entering Nepal, a landlocked country that has open borders with India to the south, east, and west, and relies on supplies — most importantly food and fuel — coming across.
Nepal saw an end to a decade-long Maoist insurgency in 2006 and abolished its centuries-old monarchy two years later. It spent years since then grappling with writing a new constitution in an attempt to end a period of political drift.
But this country of 27 million had repeatedly failed to reach a consensus over what the document needed to somehow meet the needs of Nepalis whose ideologies range from Maoism to Hindu nationalism. Despite its small size, the country is home to more than 100 ethnic groups and castes, each with a unique culture — and in many cases its own language — and many of whom have been marginalized during the centuries of rule by kings and politicians from mostly higher Hindu castes.
Among the ethnic groups who have felt discriminated against are Madhesis, who are ethnically and socially closer to the Indians across the border. Many of them are married to Indians and have relatives in India. For months, thousands of Madhesis in the southern plains have been protesting against the constitution, unhappy with division of provinces. Their unhappiness has morphed into anger, then agitation, followed by protests which have brought Nepal's southern region to a standstill for nearly two months now. Since August, more than 43 people, including children and police officers, have been killed in violent protests.
On Sept. 20, Nepal finally got a new constitution — its first as a federal democratic republic. But rather than welcoming the new phrase, India expressed its discontent and merely “noted” the development. Days later, India released another statement, this time specifically mentioning that freighters had complained about difficulties entering Nepal due to protests in the border region.
Since then, only a handful of trucks has been allowed to enter Nepal everyday, many of those only carrying perishable items like potatoes and bananas, while holding back important daily goods like petroleum products and rice.
After a fifth day of blockade that has triggered a massive shortage of vehicle and airplane fuel, Nepal on Tuesday asked all international airlines to refuel their flights bound for Kathmandu at origin airports, saying it will be unable to fuel them after they’d landed. One of the major airlines, China Southern, has said in response it is canceling all of its flights to Nepal until Oct. 10. Thousands of vehicles are lining up at petrol pumps for gas, while prices of daily commodities have soared, as local shopkeepers fear a shortage of basic goods is imminent.
Mitra Lal Regmi, head of customs for Nepal government at the Birgunj-Raxaul border in the southeast — which accounts for more than half of the trade between Nepal and India — said on Sunday that not a single truck has been allowed to pass through into India. “Indian officials say customs agents on the Indian side have not been coming to work since they do not feel safe because of the ongoing protests,” Regmi said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “So there is no one to clear those trucks and allow them to enter Nepal.”
Madhesis who had been demonstrating in the eastern part of the country have escalated their protests since last week. “A group of 400–500 protesters fled across to the Indian side of the border after police fired tear gas at them,” said Bhusan Yadav, who is the Birgunj bureau chief for the Kathmandu Post. The protesters have since been staging a sit-in at the no man’s land on the India-Nepal border.
India’s reluctance to clear the protesters to allow supply trucks to come in has been seen by Nepali officials as twisting Nepal’s arm to force a change in the constitution to meet the demands of the Madhesis.
But Indian officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News deny there is any blockade and say truck drivers who are bringing in supplies fear for their safety coming into the Nepali border because of protesters. However, senior Nepali government officials at the Finance Ministry said Nepal has guaranteed security for safe passage of all vehicles, and to date, no vehicle has been harmed while crossing the border.
Even though India insists that vehicles are not entering or have slowed down at the border due to ongoing protests, Nepali customs officials at borders throughout the country who spoke to BuzzFeed News say India has barred vehicles in regions where there are little or no protests taking place.
“There are no significant security threats at the western border,” said Janak Nepal, who is the Kathmandu Post’s correspondent in Nepalgunj. “There had been sporadic protests with maybe 100 people couple of days ago but they haven’t disrupted the border crossing.”
Indian officials in the Ministry of External Affairs declined to provide specifics when asked why it was holding trucks carrying fuel in big numbers but only allowing a handful of trucks carrying fruits and vegetables.
“Our position remains the same; we have nothing else to add,” said Masakui Rungsung, director of external publicity at the ministry, pointing to the official statement it released last week. In its statements, the Indian government has repeatedly asked Nepal to take urgent steps to address the demands of the agitating parties.
Despite reservations from Madhesi groups, Nepal’s constitution passed with majority participation in its constituent assembly. According to Subash Nembang, speaker of the assembly, 89% of the 601 lawmakers participated in the process and 85% of those supported passing the constitution.
“This is the most inclusive constituent assembly in the history of the world and has passed with the overwhelming participation,” Nembang said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “Nowhere in the world has it happened in such proportions and no constitutions have ever passed with full majority.”
But those who oppose the new constitution say that it puts power back in the hands of three top political parties — all of them run by males from the top-tier Brahmin caste — and ignores the marginalized groups in the country. To their point, the interim constitution that was adopted in 2006 said 58% of the parliament would be elected based on proportional representation, bringing voices from lower caste and indigenous groups. The new constitution changed that number to 45%.
Madhesi leaders say the government rammed through the constitution despite their continuous plea for talks, which forced them to take to the streets, including the recent protests that have disrupted movement of supply trucks at the eastern border.
“We are going to continue to do anything that will make leaders in Kathmandu listen to us,” said Laxman Lal Karna, co-chairman of the Sadbhawana Party, and one of the bigger groups opposing the constitution and leading protests in the southeastern part of the country. “The leaders in Kathmandu will feel the pain after they stop getting supplies.”
At the Kailali border in far-western Nepal, there have been no protests in days. But the supplies aren’t coming through. “The trucks that they are allowing in are carrying things like cement but they are holding the supply trucks that are carrying more important things like rice and fuel,” said Man Prasad B.K., acting head of customs at the Kailali No. 3 checkpoint in Nepal. “We have zero disturbance in this area but still India has not allowed a large number of tankers and trucks.”
Indian officials point to the trucks that have entered most recently, claiming that it shows there is no blockade being imposed on Nepal. “The customs officials will clear whatever is coming,” said Abhaya Kumar, spokesperson for the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. “You can look at the numbers.”
But the numbers tell a different story. At the Kailali crossing, which would normally see about 20 trucks enter the country daily, more than 80% of supply vehicles have not crossed through, according to Nepali customs officials. A truck that until last week would take minutes to clear through customs is now taking three to four days. As many as 70 tankers carrying fuel have been held at the Nepalgunj border in the southwest since Sunday.
Last week, 125 supply trucks crossed from India into Nepal through the border in the southwest. On Tuesday, according to Rajendra Hamal, head of customs at Nepalgunj border, only 16 trucks were cleared for entry — five of those carried potatoes while most of the rest were cement, iron goods, and floor tiles.
“They are holding trucks with basic needs like fuel and food,” Hamal said. “They know we can’t eat cement and cook with marble tiles.”
Pradeep Bashyal contributed to this report from Kathmandu.