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Ground Report: How India’s ‘Unofficial’ Blockade Of Nepal Is Leading To Its Biggest Humanitarian Crisis Yet

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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.

REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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.

Protesters affiliated with Madhesi groups demonstrate against the proposed constitution as they march towards the parliament in Kathmandu, Nepal, September 19, 2015. Nepal, which emerged from civil war in 2006, is in the final stages of preparing a new constitution that would carve the country of 28 million people into seven federal provinces. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar - RTS1UNR
REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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.

REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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