Nepalese oil tankers and commercial trucks stand stranded near a gate that marks the Nepalese border with India. — AP
Nepalese oil tankers and commercial trucks stand stranded near a gate that marks the Nepalese border with India. — AP

KATHMANDU: Nepal feels like it is being choked. It’s running out of gasoline. Medical supplies are becoming scarce. All because of an unofficial economic blockade imposed by neighboring India from where Nepal gets almost all its essential supplies.

Many Nepalese believe that India has been retaliating against their government since Sept 20, when it approved a new constitution seen by New Delhi as discriminatory to an ethnic Indian community – the Madhesi – living in Nepal’s border districts. For months as Nepalese lawmakers were debating the draft constitution, these areas witnessed violent protests by the Madhesis during which at least 45 people were killed.

Hours after the constitution was passed by an overwhelming majority of lawmakers, the violence escalated. Soon after, Indian trucks – which trundle daily across the borders, through the plains and up Nepal’s hills toward the capital, Kathmandu – stopped. While 100 or so trucks crossed over on Wednesday, more than 1,000 were left waiting at the border with shipments including medicine, gasoline, cooking fuel and produce going to rot. By yesterday afternoon, nothing more had moved. Authorities in both India and Nepal assure they are working through their difference and that supplies will resume soon. But neither side can say when that might be.

Victims of violence
“Why is India imposing a blockade against us? Don’t we have the right to draft our constitution?” asked Nirmala Rai, a school teacher who participated in a demonstration near the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu on Monday. Officially there is no blockade, and India says truckers are simply afraid to enter Nepal and end up as victims of the violence. But Nepal’s government says Indian security personnel are not allowing cargo trucks to cross the border.

The small, landlocked Himalayan nation depends on its giant neighbor to the south for all of its oil and most of its trade. Historically the two majority-Hindu nations have been close allies, sharing an open border crossed regularly by more than 3 million Nepalis who hold jobs in northern India. But Nepal has also felt ignored by India in recent years. And India has been unnerved by China’s growing influence in the country, which India considers to be within its sphere of influence.

The two Asian giants deployed their largest-ever foreign aid interventions following Nepal’s devastating earthquakes earlier this year. Shortly after taking office last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a much-publicized visit to Kathmandu – the first by an Indian prime minister in 17 years. Two years earlier, China’s premier at the time, Wen Jiabao, had passed through. But the warmth generated from India’s recent overtures appears to have chilled, and an irritated Nepal pushed back against what it saw as coercive diplomacy. Nepal was nonplussed by India’s displeasure with the constitution, expressed by New Delhi a day after the document’s approval. The Indian foreign ministry said New Delhi had “consistently argued that all sections of Nepal must reach a consensus on the political challenges confronting them.” — AP