A Nation Deprived

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

At 11 pm, Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal is fast asleep. Barring a few taxies there is no sign of life on the roads. Our contact told us that since taxies were hard to find, it would be better for us to find a hotel room for a night somewhere near the bus stand. Since September, Nepal is suffering an acute shortage of fuel. Public transportation is hit the hardest and taxies are running on fuel from the flourishing black market. They charge 1500-2000 Nepali rupees (NR) for distances as short as 4-5 km. It isn’t our first trip to Nepal so it is even more disturbing to see one of the most happening cities of South Asia go dead, silent. The government, desperate to allay the crisis, has cut down on electricity supply and resorted to load shedding of more than 11 hours a day.

Our first try to find a hotel fails. We move to North. The temperature is 10 degree Celsius and cold has begun to seep inside our shoes. We are hungry too. After a half an hour search we see a hotel with lights on. Although the shutter is down, we can hear a loud voice giving us much needed hope at that hour. In ordinary days we couldn’t have attempted to disturb the tired hotel lot but our instinct to survive is bolder than our learned courtesy. We are lucky to get a quick response.

The manager of the hotel Ganesh Thapa Magar is a gentleman in his thirties. Speaking in his soft voice, he tells us the staff has left and he could only offer the last packet of cookies for dinner. There is no way he can boil water or cook dinner. A poster in the reception table tells: ‘Welcome’. We had been travelling nonstop, from one end of Nepal to another to see what we have been hearing — India’s blockade of the nation. In Dangadi custom point, we met MLA of India’s Samajwadi Party, Ramkisan who blamed the Narendra Modi government for creating hardships for people on both sides by deliberately blocking the traffic on the ‘pretext’ of Madheshi movement in Nepal.

In Lamki, near Tikapur border where, in 7 August, policemen were burnt alive by agitating Tharus, we met a student Bishwokarma who had come all the way from Kathmandu to buy a half LPG cylinder. He had travelled 14 hours in an uncomfortable bus braving cold, leaving his classes so that he could buy currently Nepal’s scarcest energy resource. Petrol is more than 300 NR a litre in the black market. During normal times, the students in Nepal get 20 percent discount on travel but in the face of extreme fuel shortage Bishwokarma’s student ID was useless.

“We tried to buy a cylinder in Kathmandu but sellers are charging around 12,000 NR for it,” he tells us. He says he still hopes for a Maoist revolution in Nepal. Calling it a panacea for all ills the country is currently shrouded with, he says only a revolution could end corruption, exploitation and anarchy in Nepal. So far, in our journey we had only met people who blamed the 10-year-long Maoist insurgency for everything bad in Nepal. But for Bishwokarma, these were the most exciting years, full of hope.

Across Nepal people are unhappy with their government. Although New Delhi’s role in fuelling current crisis is understood, they mainly blame their own government for not being able to address the problem and ‘begging’ India to solve the problem they themselves have created.

The people’s anger is justified. In 2014 its GDP was 5.48, lower than what it was in 2008, when the monarchy was abolished.

In April last year a devastating earthquake claimed whatever was left. More than 9000 people died and lakhs were rendered homeless. It is estimated that the impact of the disaster has pushed additional 7 lakh people into poverty. Human trafficking has increased, so has migration.

The frequent changes in government has paralysed policy making and reconstruction work has not yet began. And just when Nepal was hoping to initiate its first reconstruction and rehabilitation plan, the traffic blockade at Indo-Nepal border dented the country’s hope of revival.

The construction work across Kathmandu is halted. Since September, the cost of living has increased manifold forcing labour to move out of the valley for the destinations more accommodating. “Life was never this hard,” says a guard at a construction site near Pashupathinath temple area.

There is a long queue of trucks at Dhangadi border. The drivers, frustrated with three day long wait for clearance, are looking restless. “I have medicines in my truck and even then I am not allowed to go,” one says. “At Sunauli border, I waited 45 days for clearance,” said another. “But the Indian government says that your lives are in danger in Nepal?” we ask. “No, there is no danger in Nepal,” says Shabir who is carrying goods from Noida.

Dangadi border is a small customs check point. On normal days, only 10- 15 trucks would pass through. But since there is disturbance in Birgunj and Sunauli borders, many trucks are rerouted through other small check posts such as this one.

“Yesterday, we let 54 trucks pass,” says RK Singh, the customs inspector, sipping his morning tea. “Until a fortnight ago, there used to be only 15-20 trucks, now we are dealing with as many as 100 a day. Yesterday, we worked overtime. We allowed trucks to cross after 8 pm but then a Seema Surkasha Bal (SSB) personnel came to tell us not to do this ever again. When I told him we have to do this on humanitarian grounds, he said that he didn’t understand humanity, he only understood orders,” he says.