The Unofficial Blockade in Nepal

It is sheer coincidence that when India imposed blockade in 1989, Nepal was reeling from an earthquake that struck the eastern part of the country. The current unofficial or what is dubbed as aghosit nakabandi also came after a devastating April earthquake. It is the Indian Oil Corporation, which ironically helped establish a gas station for Nepal Police in Kathmandu. The royal regime in 1989 had sensed the blockade, and therefore, resorted to stockpiling fuel. The country was able to sustain fuel during blockade, which lasted for more than a year. However, this time the government has been caught napping. If the media is reporting the truth, the stockpile of fuel was enough only for 17 days. This must be the reason why the government brought a complete closure of fuel sales to privately owned vehicles.

During the blockade of 1989, the regime thought that the country will garner national and international support, thereby helping to nullify Indian pressure tactics. The Economist reported of Nepal securing the services of London based international advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, to float Nepal’s point of view among international community. Environmental degradation as a result of massive deforestation for firewood was used to secure international concern and sympathy. Meanwhile, Nepal Television broadcasted news about some elite families claiming firewood cooked meal to be much more delicious than the one cooked in LPG or kerosene. In 1989, India strategically let fuel and other materials come through two cross border entry points, while closing 20. This tactic theoretically did not violate the rights of a landlocked country and hence avoided criticisms from international legal pundits.

The negotiating table of the regime in Kathmandu turned upside down as its effort to garner public support boomeranged. The political parties revolting against the regime intensified their protest by tacitly supporting the blockade. With external and internal pressures (blockade plus the People’s Movement), the monarchy finally agreed to give up its absolute power and remain as a constitutional figurehead. With the regime change in Kathmandu, the blockade was lifted.

It is yet to be seen whether the current unofficial blockade will exert similar political impact as in 1990. The political scenario is different today; the monarchy has been abolished and the country is no more under absolute rulers. Thus far, the international community has shied away from getting engaged into Nepal-India bilateral issue. With India posing as a giant player in the global economy, very few countries, including China, may take the risk of offending India.

It is undiplomatic of the political leaders in Kathmandu to play the China card. Economic efficiency cannot be sacrificed on the altar of India-phobic jingoism.

One can air lift fuel to Kathmandu but at what cost? Who will bear the subsidy? India has not resorted to a total blockade, and it is blaming the Nepali government for not providing enough security to the passing vehicles. The international lobbying for Nepal’s free transit rights is useless. India cannot and has not closed all entry points, merely strangulation of traffic flows at the Raxual-Birgunj entry point is enough to put a dent in Kathmandu.

If India has an inevitable upper hand in economic dealings with Nepal then why does the blockade not have the desired impact even after two weeks of pressure? What the government in India has failed to note is that the blockade has come as a blessing in disguise to some sections close to the power centre in Nepal. There is almost an overnight four to five fold increases in the price of petrol in the black market. The fuel shortage has impacted almost every sector of the economy.

The uniqueness of Nepalese economy is that unlike textbook economics, which tells you that economic efficiency and competitiveness lead to survival and growth; Nepal’s economy survives on inefficiency, monopoly and creating opportunistic black markets.

Imagine the scale of profits people at the top are making from this artificial shortage? As long as India does not resort to an all-out blockade, the people close to the power centre benefit from this black market. The regime in Kathmandu will continue to posture for China as an alternative source of supply, delay the process of talks and dialogue with madhesbadi political parties, play nationalist sentiments among party cadres, and even leave the common people to suffer more to draw international sympathy from humanitarian crisis, like the royal regime in 1989.

The government and the media are reporting the blockade as a double slap to the already earthquake stricken Nepal. The reality is that, for five months, the government was doing nothing to secure the $4 billion aid pledged by the international community. While the whole house is on fire, the major political players in Kathmandu are busy deciding who should sleep in the master bedroom. It will not be surprising if an argument like this will follow in the days to come: People living in southern plains, not affected by the April earthquake, are consolidating their political bargaining power over the people victimized by the April earthquake. With increased souring of relations between Nepal and India, the comical characters who performed satirical chhama puja for absolving the sins of PM Modi at the temple of Lord Pashupatinath must be hanging their heads in shame. The bilateral relationship does not seem to improve anytime soon. If the internal issues are not solved soon, we may end up making enemies within the state and outside of the state. There is a Chinese proverb “an egg must not argue with a stone.”

Narayan Manandhar

Narayan Manandhar is a freelance consultant with an interest in corruption and governance issues.