By Deepak Adhikari:
For Kishor Adhikari (no relation with the author), a fifty-year-old casino worker, a task as ordinary as fetching medicines for his ailing parents has turned out to be a laborious effort. He arrived at the Bir Hospital, Nepal’s oldest and largest facility in downtown Kathmandu, clutching the patient’s card of his 70-year-old father, who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
For the third time in a week, he has made a trip from his home on the western outskirts of Kathmandu to the hospital, only to be turned away by pharmacists. Inside the red card are names of nine life-saving medicines in barely decipherable handwritings.
“I have been making rounds of hospitals and pharmacies for a week, but haven’t found the medicines. My father has been using them for the last three years. The medicines we have last only for three more days,” said Adhikari, whose 67-year-old mother is a patient of thyroid and ulcer.
Recovering slowly after two devastating earthquakes that struck Nepal earlier this year, the crippling shortages of essential supplies — petrol, diesel, cooking gas and now medicines—have unsettled Nepali people.
Conversations in Kathmandu have centered on the war-like emergency, where every household prioritises getting hold of a cylinder of gas or a few litres of petrol above everything else.
There is palpable anger against India that can be overheard in chats between strangers brought together in the face of crisis, trying best to look normal in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety.
The resentment is also reflected in the opinion pieces and ‘letters to the editor’ in Nepal’s vibrant media landscape. Prominent opinion makers have gone to the extent of calling it a ‘siege’.
“An economic blockade is a war by other means. Its impact is felt when people die due to shortages of medicines and lack of livelihood,” Dhruba Kumar, a retired professor of political science, earlier with the Tribhuvan University, wrote in a recent opinion piece for Kantipur daily, Nepal’s largest selling newspaper.
Kumar went on to add that a blockade completely destroys the national economy. “This is more devastating than traditional warfare fought in a limited geographical area,” he wrote.
Earlier this week, two Nepali legislators demanded that the Indian envoy to Nepal should be sent back.
Nepali politicos, having just realised the decades-old dream of promulgating a constitution through a Constituent Assembly, were in a celebratory mood in September, when New Delhi decided to resort to a coercive measure at its disposal: imposing an economic blockade on the landlocked country. India officially denies the blockade and its stated position is that a political solution should be found between the Madhesis and the current government.
Apparently, India did so to express its reservations on the post-war – fought between the Maoists and the State – Republican constitution passed by an overwhelming majority in the parliament.
At the forefront of the protests against the charter are the Madhesis, people with close cultural, linguistic and marital ties across the border in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The demands of the Madhesis revolve around the idea of inclusion, affirmative action and an end to alleged institutionalised discrimination.
The fact is that that the ruling elite dominated by people from the hills views them with suspicion, questions their loyalty and abuses and humiliates them using derogatory terms such as ‘dhoti’ (one who wears a lungi) and ‘Indian’.
Fifty people, including an Indian citizen from Raxaul, a town in Bihar that lies on the border between India and Nepal and nine policemen have been killed in the protests. Nepal’s security forces have been accused of grave human rights violations including extra-judicial killings in which children have also reportedly perished. The protesters have also resorted to violence. In late August, eight policemen were killed by protesters from indigenous Tharu community in western Nepal. One policeman was lynched by Madhesi protesters in eastern Nepal. Protesters have attacked ambulances and passenger buses. Medicine-laden cargo trucks have been set on fire.
“We feel the country is ours since we pay taxes. But we can’t relate to the State because very few Madhesis have been accepted into the national army, police force and bureaucracy,” said Manish Kumar Suman, a spokesman for Sadbhawana Party, one of the four parties—Federal Socialist Forum, Tarai-Madhes Loktantrik Party, Sadbhawana Party and Tarai-Madhes Sadbhawana Party – that make up the alliance spearheading the protests. Social exclusion and discrimination faced by Madhesis, according to Suman, found an outlet through the protests, sustaining it for more than three months already. “If you had asked Madhesi leaders about the protests in early August, they wouldn’t have imagined it to last this long,” he said.
Nevertheless, their protests marked the 100th day this week. They have organised sit-ins in Birgunj, a major trade route between India and Nepal and elsewhere although they have not been regularly held. For over three months, the vast swathes of southern plains (Tarai) have been crippled by protests.
The Madhesi Morcha, as the alliance of four regional parties is called, has been protesting along the highways, small towns and bazaars and at border crossings in the Tarai plains. However, the alliance is itself fragmented. With the protesters increasingly turning to violence, questions have been raised whether the leadership has lost its grip on them. Since most of the leaders protesting were routed in the last parliamentary polls, it has been speculated that the agitation is to shore up their flagging political fortunes.
However, considering the marginalisation of the Madhesis in Nepal, there is sympathy for their concerns. No one denies that a solution to the problem should have been found by Nepal’s politicians by taking on board these concerns while drafting the constitution. But what no one likes is India’s bullying approach which has complicated the matters, apart from choking Nepal’s vital lifelines.
This is quite a turnaround for India, which under Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earned good will in Nepal. The relations between the two countries seemed to have reached new heights after his visit to Nepal in August last year, which was quickly followed by a trip to attend the SAARC Summit in November, which was held in Kathmandu.
The goodwill is now clearly a thing of the past.
What is equally clear is that the blockade has taken a huge toll on families who are struggling to make ends meet. The combined impact of the blockade and protests is said to be worse than that of the earthquakes that killed 9000 people and made half a million homeless. Earlier this week, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a statement saying the shortages were threatening lives of millions of children. Additionally, there’s hardly any area of economic activity that’s untouched by the blockade, especially the fuel shortage that it has caused.
From the hotel and tourism industry that draws tourist dollars to agriculture which is a source of income for the vast majority of Nepalis, each sector is bearing the brunt of the blockade. Tens of thousands of workers from the southern flatland which hosts the few industries left in Nepal have been without work for months, with little or no prospect of compensation.
The blockade has also given rise to a whole new parallel economy. The scarcity has led to an organised, transboundary crime. Nepali newspapers have reported a spike in smuggling of fuel along the border. While the onus of stopping the smuggling lies on Kathmandu, its tentacles spread far and wide across the border in India, thanks to the blockade whose existence the latter won’t accept.
By backing the Madhesi protesters, New Delhi might have won praises from a section of Nepali society. But its action has antagonised a large section of Nepali people. For now, Nepal seems on edge, trying to avert a looming crisis. But in the long run, India might lose a friendly neighbour.