That’s what the people of Nepal are paying for their Petrol (what us Americans call “Gas”).
I arrived in Khatmandu on November 2, 2015 after two weeks in India building a chicken coop in the Odisha state. The taxi cabs were outside waiting for customers to drive to their destinations. Kara, Katherine, Barb and myself had heard stories and rumors about the 2015 fuel crisis in Nepal but had yet to see its impact. We were there to meet up with the Karmaflights team that was partnering with Orphans to Ambassadors in building a solar powered computer lab for a school in a small village called “Arnakot“. Just a few weeks before us a few of the Karmaflights team had left for Khatmandu and found themselves stranded in China as their flights were canceled. Canceled because, while the planes had the fuel to get to Khatmandu Nepal, they did not have enough to get out and fueling up while in Nepal was not an option.
While in India just before we arrived in Khatmandu I had asked Kara why Nepal was having this “gas crisis” since I had trouble finding articles on the subject just weeks before while still in the U.S. and nothing was coming up searching in Google while in India.
She wanted to explain what she had come to learn but didn’t feel comfortable in front of our hosts in India. The women that took care of us were very kind and very well educated, yet they didn’t seem to know where Nepal is. They asked “Is it somewhere in India?” I responded to their questions by pulling out my phone and launching my Google maps. I showed them where we were (in India) on the map and that Nepal is a small country that borders the Northeastern part of their country. Then showing them that on the other side of Nepal was China. It was interesting that they didn’t know what Nepal was, where it was, and certainly didn’t know that their country was cutting off gas supplies.
Now that we were in Khatmandu, after the four of us girls found a cab to the Guest House we were staying at for the night, we settled into our rooms and sat down in the patio just outside the Guest House. After a few beers and a tea for myself I asked Kara if she could now explain what was the cause of the gas shortage.
Her best explanation at the time was that since India bordered the side of Nepal with the least mountain range they were the only way for Nepal to bring gas into the country. India had closed all transport of gas across the borders leaving Nepal with a shortage of gas in the country and quickly running out. At the moment she heard that only buses and taxis (vehicles relying on gas for their income) were allowed to fill their tanks. She showed us the pictures that Tim, one of the members of Kharmaflights who was in Khatmandu just before us and then in Pokhara, had posted of the buses with smashed in windshields. Protesters across the borders were throwing large stones at them. She also mentioned that People were sneaking gas across the border and selling it in the black market which is what the organization was having to buy in order to get the solar panels to the computer lab in Arnakot.
It was an interesting conversation as Kara could only relay what she heard. We met up with the friend of the Director of Karmaflights, Laxman, who was there to see us to Pokhara the next day. The rest of the evening we enjoyed dinner and drinks then off to bed for an early rise the next morning.
Laxman arrived with the truck that he borrowed from a friend along with a driver that would be our transport to Pokhara from Khatmandu. The journey was over 7 hours with a few stops along the way.
With the drive to Pokhara being so long, we had plenty of time to talk about the fuel crisis in Nepal in addition to Paul and Laxman talking about paragliding and Laxman talking to me about photography.
Laxman explained that the reason why India was stopping the import of fuel across their borders was purely political.
(Note: the following is part what Laxman had explained with the addition of my research the following weeks while visiting Nepal)
Before the gas crisis in Nepal roughly 300 or so fuel trucks would enter from India in one day, but since September 20, 2015 this has drastically reduced to only 5 to 10 fuel trucks a day. This seems to be only held to fuel as shipments of perishables like fruits and vegetables have been allowed to pass.
India is accused of imposing an “undeclared blockade”. India has denied the allegations, stating the supply shortages have been imposed by Madheshi protesters within Nepal, and that India has no role in it.
The Madhesi reside on the borders of India and have been thought to have close socio-cultural ties to the neighbouring Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
On September 20th (the first day of the block) more than 40 people including 8 police officers had been killed in clashes between protesters and the police. A collection of minority groups began protesting over the signing of the new constitution by attacking Nepali police. A collective of smaller protests (Chhepa, Sherpa, Limbu, Rai people, Raute, Thakali, etc.) make up about 35 percent of the population. The larger and more persuasive Tharus and Madhesi people had also been protesting for their rights, alleging that the new constitution marginalized them. A large part leading up to the protests and blocking of gas into Nepal are said to lie with the Madheshis.
The new Constitution of Nepal was passed with 90% approval from the representatives in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) on September 20, 2015. The Constitution has been under discussion for some time among the Constituent Assembly. Roughly 600 members of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly abstained from voting in protest. The same day the fuel blockade began, the Indian Express newspaper reported that India had demanded specific changes to the new Nepali constitution. While the Indian Government denied this claim the Indian Express reporter stood by the original report restating that “these amendments/changes were communicated by New Delhi to Kathmandu”. In addition, an Economic Times reporter stated that Indian Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) staff “confirmed that at least till the third week of September, they had orders from above to intercept fuel shipments to Nepal”.
The government of Nepal and the Nepalese media have been portraying the Madhesi as being backed by the people of India. Some of the Nepalis I have spoken with and in reports are concerned that this is an attempt for India to eventually absorb Nepal. Due to an open border treaty between Nepal and India, citizens of both countries have been crossing freely for work and generally live across borders without passports, which has made tracking the people of India and Nepal difficult. Indians residing and taking over Nepal has long been an issue straining Nepal-India relations.
Social media has played a large role with the hashtag #BackOffIndia on Facebook and seen in graffiti throughout the country. When the Nepali government got wind of the protests and blocking of gas across the border military forces were sent. Despite the little success the military had on stopping the protests, supplies have been (and continue to be) blocked on the Indian side. While some leaders of various parties claimed India had infiltrated the Madhesh with Indian protesters, the Madheshi leaders have denied the allegations, stating that the Madheshis should not be mistaken for the Indian State “Biharis” or any other Indians.
As we drove out of Khatmandu we saw lines of buses and taxis running miles long all waiting to fill up their tanks at the station. It is reported that the price for petrol is anywhere from 108 Nepali rupees per liter to 128 rupees (roughly $4.00 or more per gallon) the locals I have spoken to all say petrol runs them 400 to 500 rupees per liter ($14.00 to $16.00 per gallon) with some paying as much as 900 on the black market. People are sneaking petrol across the borders of India and selling it at exceptionally high prices. In addition, a taxi driver had mentioned that the petrol is being diluted which is ruining their engines.
What about China?
Nepal is essentially landlocked due to the Himalayas spanning the North. Leaving them to depend on India for almost all its import needs. It appears China has offered aid, however due to the earthquake in the summer of 2015 the roads leading through the border and to the major cities are destroyed and rendered impassable. In 1989, India had closed 19 of the 21 border crossings, after a dispute over renegotiation of lapsed trade and transit treaties between the two countries. Nepal’s increasing cooperation with China, including its purchase of Chinese weaponry, was seen as a major factor behind this blockade.
As we drove along the windy roads we saw buses with smashed in windshields. Some had completely removed their windshields and replaced them with saran wrap leaving just enough of a gap for the driver to see. The occasional bus passed by with grating or wire on the front to protect the windshield from the heavy stones being tossed. It all seems like a scene from Mad Max.
I spoke with my taxi driver on my way back home and asked him if he thought it would get better. He said that “everything works out”. Which seems to be the way the people are reacting to it all. The Nepali people are peaceful and firmly believe that in time it will all work out.
Others I have spoken to are not as skeptical. If this continues they see some sort of action being taken, maybe even so much as leading up to an outright war.
During my stay in Pokhara we were devastated with the news of the bombings and shootings in France. I sat next to one of the Hidden Paradise Guest House (ran by Laxman and his family) guests. A woman from the UK. She and I flew through our Facebook feed reading articles shared by our friends as we didn’t have a y television or radio to receive information. Among those articles were the occasional post mentioning attacks on Beirut just the day before Paris with the addition that they aren’t getting the news coverage that France is. The attacks on Paris and Beirut are tragic, but what about the Nepalis who have been suffering since September 20th and continue to suffer.
From walking into a restaurant to find that they have a limited menu because the transports can’t get the produce to local businesses without fuel, to waiting longer than usual for your food to arrive because they are cooking on a wood fire rather than a gas stove.
It’s not just the buses being attacked as they cross the border. It’s not just the taxi that is hussling to get black market petrol and hoping it doesn’t destroy his motor. It’s not just the local restaurants empty and suffering from lack of business. The people are being affected and there seems to be no end in sight.