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Fuel and Fire.

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Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said, "You can change friends, but not neighbours." The quote may be a wise saying for others, but for a small and landlocked country like Nepal, it is a harsh reality.

This is because Nepal has been facing its worst ever energy crisis owing to an "unofficial trade blockade," which has been imposed by neighbouring India from where Nepal gets its essential supplies like oil, diesel, aviation fuel, kerosene and liquid petroleum gas (LPG). The Nepalese government has declared an energy emergency in the country.

The reason behind the blockade is the new constitution in Nepal, which India perceives as discriminatory to the Madhesi community, an ethnic Indian minority living in the southern regions of Nepal bordering India. A large number of minorities, mostly from the Madhesi community, have shown their concerns over the new federal constitution.

Prior to the constitution's enactment, over 45 people died and several others were injured in clashes with security forces during protests. Soon after the constitution was promulgated on September 20, India disallowed its cargo trucks and fuel tankers to cross the border, which suddenly led to a fuel crisis throughout Nepal and since then oil supplies to the country have been put on a halt.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement a day after the constitution came, saying that India was deeply concerned over the violent incidents that resulted in many deaths and injuries to civilians in the India-Nepal border regions.

"We had repeatedly cautioned the political leadership of Nepal to take urgent steps to defuse the tension in these regions. This, if done in a timely manner, could have avoided these serious developments," a Indian statement said.

It further said, "We have consistently argued that all sections of Nepal must reach a consensus on the political challenges confronting them. The issues facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved through force." India says its transporters and freight companies have already raised their deep concerns over the security issues and they are facing several difficulties during their movement within Nepal, owing to the ongoing turbulence.

On September 25, five days after the promulgation of the constitution, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement, saying, "We have seen reports of obstructions at various entry-exit points at the India-Nepal border. The reported obstructions are due to unrest, protests and demonstrations on the Nepalese side, by sections of their population. As was already said on 21 September 2015, our freight forwarders and transporters had voiced complaints about the difficulties they are facing in movement within Nepal and their security fears, due to the prevailing unrest."

However, Nepal's stand over the ongoing supply blockage is quite the opposite, as the spokesperson for Nepal's Ministry of Home Affairs, Laxmi Prasad Dhakal clearly denies India's stance and believes there are no security concerns for the Nepal-bound cargo vehicles to pass through the border checkpoint.

"Just after the constitution was put into effect, India stopped the trucks at the border citing security issues. Our stand is this is a vengeance from India as they are not happy with Nepal's new constitution. This is a trade blockade, just not officially announced," says Dhakal.

Narayan Man Bijukchhe, the president of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, says India has now declared a communal war with Nepal. Former Attorney General, Dr Yubaraj Sangraula says, "As per the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, a landlocked country gets an unrestricted right of access to and from the sea of the nearby costal state. A transit country also should provide good infrastructure to enable the landlocked country to get access to the sea." Sangraula believes the Indian trade blockade is simply "an act of aggression."

On one side, Madhesi protesters have blocked the Nepal-India border for weeks and, on the other, India does not allow its fuel trucks to cross those checkpoints that are free of protestors. According to the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), a state-owned oil trading enterprise, Indian customs and the Indian Oil Corporation have not allowed their fuel tankers to enter Nepal.

To address the fuel shortages, the Nepali government has introduced an 'odd/even vehicle rotation system' and has asked its citizens to use firewood and charcoal for cooking, instead of LPG. Following the odd-even system, vehicles with even registration numbers can only operate on even dates, while those with odd number plates may ply on odd dates.

According to NOC spokesman Deepak Baral, fuel-starved Nepal faces a crisis-like situation since hundreds of fuel trucks are waiting for clearance inside the Indian border while the country's current oil stocks will end soon.

To overcome the fuel crisis, Nepal has now turned towards China, which is another neighbouring country. Since the Nepal-China border has the world's highest mountains, reopening the trading routes with China is not viable due to logistical constraints.

In addition, two border crossings between both countries were largely blocked by landslides after a series of devastating earthquake which hit Nepal in April this year.

One of the crossings has been reopened recently and it is the first occasion when China, in place of India, would be supplying fuel to Nepal. A spokesperson of the National Oil Corporation says China will provide 340,000 gallons (1.3 million litres) of gasoline to Nepal, which will be first brought to a town near the Nepal-China border, and then nearly 100 fuel tankers will transport the gasoline to Kathmandu, which is the capital and largest city in Nepal.

Anti-India protests have erupted throughout the Nepal. The Nepalese people accuse India of imposing a trade blockade and of meddling in Nepal's domestic politics.

"If protestors wanted to blockade Kathmandu, they'd close it where you enter the Valley. Why would they do it at the border This is a blockade done through official connivance of the Indian government. The Indian customs officials, Indian border police, and the Indian Oil Corporation, the monopoly supplier to Nepal, have all worked together to block the border, citing orders from New Delhi," says Kanak Mani Dixit, a publisher of a local news magazine called Himal Southasian.

Dixit says India is aggrieved because it was not consulted about the new constitutional changes, and it is the process, not the content of Nepal's new constitution, which lets the neighbours down. "Indian bureaucrats and intelligence officials, on whose hands Nepal policy is by and large left by New Delhi, feel irritated by Nepal's self-driven adoption of its own charter," says Dixit.

The former secretary of Nepal's ministry of commerce and supplies, Prushottam Ojha believes both countries should find a diplomatic solution to resolve their disputes instead of going to the international court. "We have to take measures to reduce trade dependency on India," says Ojha.

This is not the first time India has imposed an economic blockade against Nepal. In 1989, the then Indian government had caused the same misery when a trade dispute surfaced between both countries. At that time, India cut off its trade links with Nepal and shut down its border crossings for more than a year.

A blockade-induced fuel crisis is at its peak in Nepal and so is India's obstinacy to hold its neighbours under its thumb.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 31, 2015
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