Lessons from the landlocked

BY ANJUMAN ARA BEGUM

‘From today, everything is coming to a halt’, my land lady ‘aunty’ warned me early morning as I am sipping a cup of tea. ‘It’s been a hell’, she cried. Her anguish and helplessness is understandable. It’s been nearly a month, the ‘unofficial economic blockade’ has devastatingly hit the land locked country of Nepal. The country is heavily dependent on India for essential supplies like food items, patrol products, cloths etc. 51% of Nepal’s import is from India and is it the sixth largest contributor to India’s foreign revenue. Fuel shortage impacted transportation creating worst situation ever since the deadly earthquake hit the country early this year.

Local taxis in queue for fuel
Local taxis in queue for fuel

It’s been two months since I have moved to Nepal. Since then I have observed political turbulence along with violence in the country surrounding the adoption of a Constitution for itself. About 49 people lost their life in the areas bordering Nepal. However, standstill life like this in the capital Kathmandu was beyond my imagination. Two weeks back, aunty warned me to be economical with cooking gas and assured help in case of further ‘crisis’. Being a traditional Hindu lady, she is worried of the upcoming festival time. She is also moving out of the country to meet her sons. ‘I am not able to do any shopping for them till now and I am sad’. Aunty blames the ‘donkey’ politicians of Nepal for this situation. She learnt from TV that there are oil reservoirs in Nepal and government is not paying attention to use it for the country but depend on India.

Another middle aged woman, owner of a small grocery shop just outside my house laments everyday as I pass by. Uncertainty about her business in coming day’s makes her restless. ‘Dashein is approaching fast. I have so many plans with my family to celebrate the festival. But I see only darkness. Feel like crying’. Dashein is the largest Hindu festival in Nepal. Whole country goes into celebration mood and it’s a good time for the small traders like her to earn an extra bonus. Despite her appalling situation and uncertain business, she gives me a smile and assured that she will help me if I need anything. “Lots of Nepalese live in Assam and you are from Assam. So you are our guest’, she assured firmly. I see that she has added locally available green vegetables in the number of items available in her shop. Many vegetable vendors are supplying more greens as it is locally available and popular specially in winter time.

Kalanki Chowk is a very crowded place in Kathmandu. It has one of the most crowded foot bridge I ever saw. It is also one of my favorite spot to spend time at the end of the day. I simply go there and watch people’s movement. In last few days, I heard people’s concerns over the situation critiquing Indian Prime Minister Modi’s role. This in contrast to what I heard when I came here two months back. Indian Prime Minister Modi travelled to Nepal few months back. One taxi driver was sharing with me his experience of ‘meeting’ him on the way. ‘Modi gained huge popularity during that visit. He broke security protocols and shook hands with common people on the road. People thought India Nepal Bhai Bhai (Brother, Brother) . It’s all gone now.  Memories of those magical moments have certainly faded now.

Angry youths are also seen ‘donating’ petrol at Indian Embassy when it requested Nepal Oil Corporation for 150 litres of fuel. Supplies are waiting at the border. It’s all for ‘security reasons’, as the media reports reflects. Who is secured by the way? Trucks loaded with supplies are stranded and are now spread over few kilometers for nearly a month now. TV footage show that the truck drivers are living a sub humane life with the meagre food supplies, inadequate sanitation facilities and medicine. But who is bothered? Some small factories in Nepal are closed for last two months causing great loss to the economy of the country that is recovering from the earthquake.

On September 28, 2015, I was flying back to Kathmandu from Delhi airport. Flight was delayed by one hour. The captain explained the reason as non-availability of fuel at Kathmandu airport. They have to carry fuel to be able to return as well. On landing at the airport in Kathmandu, I found that taxi prices has almost doubled. I called a known taxi driver to pick me up. He reached me in 20 minutes. ‘My fuel tank [fuel tank of the car] is really reading low and you are my last passenger for today’. I asked what he will do from tomorrow. “I will sleep, what else to do?’. He has two children and is worried about how to manage money for the upcoming celebration. ‘I use to earn about 3000 thousand per day. But now hardly half of it. There are passengers but I cannot run my vehicle. How can I save for the festivals? How shall I buy gifts for my family members?’. You must be angry with India, I asked. ‘No maam. I am angry with the government in India. They are doing it to win Bihar election’. International airliners are now refueling at Delhi instead of Kathmandu, he informed.

People believe that Bihar election has a role for the blockade. ‘We made a mistake. We should have deferred the adoption of the Constitution till Bihar election is over’, told me a friend of my land lord during our morning walk in the hillside. ‘Our politicians are not visionary. They don’t strategies their action’, he said shaking his head vigorously in affirmation.

Every crisis has some limited positive impact even if it’s violent. Roads are cleaner with less traffic jam, people are taking long walks to reach office etc, blue sky and a smell of fresh air. Above all, the Nepalese way of managing the crisis is something to be appreciated and learnt. Probably the devastating earth quack has taught them skills of dealing with crisis. People are calm and helping each other. Private vehicles have put forth a sign paper offering free rides on their way. Government has divided the vehicles into even and odd numbers and each vehicle ply alternate day. Public vehicles are given priority in patrol pumps. Many people has switched to public transport rather than using their own vehicles.

Price control is also visible. Prices for daily essential has not gone high despite shortages. People are asked not to buy supplies for storing purposes. ‘I am staying in my mom’s place for last three weeks. This is nearer to my office. I am separated from my husband since then as his office is somewhere else and he has taken refuge in another relative’s house’, said lady officer working in Kalanki area. In few days schools are going to be closed if transportation problem persist. ‘It will be difficult to manage my home when I am away’, she is worried. Another lady in my neighborhood said ‘I am cooking only one curry for meals. This way I can save some cooking gas.’ While another lady shared that they are surviving on chura (flattened rice) and curd. This doesn’t require cooking.

It is reported in the media has India has now ‘pushed back’ after the election of Prime Minister of Nepal, Mr. KP Oli few days back and relations with India is expected to go back to ‘normalcy’. The crisis may get over in near future. But I wonder who will be responsible for the suffering of these ordinary people who hardly know what is written in the constitution.

Anjuman Ara Begum is a human rights researcher and freelance journalists from India and currently works with FORUM-ASIA’s Kathmandu office. Opinion expressed are her personal. She can be contacted at anju.azad@gmail.com