By Susan Biggs, Chief Executive Officer, Adara Development
Nepal has spent a lot of time in the international news in 2015. The whole world rallied behind this small nation with a big heart, as it recovered from the deadly earthquakes that struck on 25 April. We were all moved to act by this disaster, which saw close to 9,000 people die and left more than 2.2 million homeless.
Yet many people may not know that Nepal is now facing an even worst humanitarian crisis – one that UNICEF says could leave more than 3 million children under the age of five at risk of death or disease and has damaged the Nepali economy far more than the loss from the earthquakes. And the worst thing is – this disaster is manmade, and largely ignored by the world media.
Out of the devastation of the earthquakes, Nepal’s political parties came together, and after eight years of deliberations finally delivered the long-awaited Constitution of Nepal on 20 September 2015.
While this milestone has been celebrated by most, for the past three months there have been strong and continuous agitations from some Nepalis who felt it did not fairly represent them.
These agitations have been led primarily by a large ethnic group called the Madhesi who make up around 30% of Nepal’s population. Over the past few months, the Madhesi protests have escalated and at least 50 people have been killed since August. The Madhesi are unhappy with the demarcation of the seven new states in the new constitution. They believe the new state borders have been created to minimise their demographic power and lessen their political bargaining capacity. The Madhesi are demanding these state borders be redrawn giving them two large states which encompass all of the flat lands. Plus they want a proportionate number (i.e. 30%) of positions in the army, police, bureaucracies and other state offices.
The Madhesi live on the border between India and Nepal and are ethnically, linguistically and culturally aligned with India. The Nepal government is accusing India of encouraging the Madhesi protesters because they are close to the people of the Northern Indian States, and of imposing an unofficial blockade along the border, in order to pressure the Nepali government to make changes to the Constitution.
India is Nepal’s biggest trading partner, accounting for more than 60% of all Nepal’s trade. With the border blocked, there’s very little fuel, food or medicine getting in to Nepal. Fuel trucks have gone from about 300 to five trucks a day. And this is only compounding the pressure on a nation desperately trying to lift itself out of the rubble of disaster and rebuild their lives.
Due to lack of food, fuel and supplies, Nepal, a country of 28 million people, has essentially ground to a halt. Schools have been forced to close, with more than 2 million Nepali children now out of school. Hospitals are turning away patients with no medicines to treat even the most life threatening illnesses. There is no fuel, gas, or kerosene to cook food or travel anywhere. Industries have shut, including 2,000 factories, as they can’t get materials to continue to operate, so thousands of people are unable to work. And tourist arrivals, a mainstay in the economy, have plummeted with tourists unable to get around the country.
The blockade is not only damaging daily life for Nepalis, but it has also has hampered Nepal’s ability to begin the earthquake rebuilding process. Without fuel, international aid can’t be delivered to some of the most affected areas. For Adara, this means that our rebuilding work with remote Ghangfedi has come to a standstill, as without fuel to get the necessary supplies to the region, we are unable to help this community which lost 100% of buildings, to begin to rebuild their homes and their lives.
For their part, India denies any official involvement in the blockade, saying that the Indian trucks are not coming into Nepal because the truck drivers are afraid of the violent protesters. They say the Nepali government isn’t providing enough security for the passing vehicles.
Nepal believe that India is strong-arming this small country, using their political power to try and impose their own vision of Nepal’s constitution on their weaker neighbour and to punish Nepal for not accounting for India’s interests in the constitution. A leaked document revealed that New Delhi told Kathmandu that it was hoping Nepal would be restored as a Hindu nation (the last in the world), or at least “drop the word ‘secular’ from its charter”. This didn’t happen. Nepal remains a secular state in the constitution, and many Nepalis believe that this is at the heart of India’s imposition of a blockade.
Winter is coming. For anyone who has ever experienced a Himalayan winter, you will understand what a lack of fuel and other critical supplies could mean for the people of Nepal. This is an enormous looming humanitarian disaster threatening to eclipse the devastation from the earthquakes and we need to do what we can to help the Nepali people who are set to literally starve in the long winter ahead if this blockade does not end.
I’d like to ask all of you to do your part. Help us spread the word. Raise the issue in your local media, share it on social media, and be creative to think about what other ways you can to raise awareness of the problem. We need to apply international pressure on India and Nepal governments to negotiate and provide the leadership to get the blockade lifted. One way you can do that, is to use the power of social media to directly contact India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Facebook and Twitter and ask him respectfully to lift the blockade, using hashtag #NepalHopes.
Our Nepal Country Director, Pralhad Dhakal said to me recently;