September 28, 2015
Five days ago, Maoist chief Prachanda defended the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution by stating that it was a matter of “conscience and self respect,” adding that “We cannot bow down before anyone’s pressure or persuasion.” Presumably this was a sideswipe at the international community—particularly India – that advocated more inclusive negotiations with the southern ethnic groups in southern Nepal rather than Kathmandu politicos rushing through the new charter with their preferred seven-state federal set-up.
Parliamentary arrogance may now be paying the piper.
In the last week, Madhesi and Tharu blockades and protests have successfully interrupted petrol supplies coming in from India, which, in turn have spawned a barrage of accusations from both Indian and Nepali officials, thus intensifying pre-existing hostility between the two countries; Prime Minister Koirala was forced to cancel his trip to attend a meeting of the United Nation’s General Assembly; and last but not least, ex-Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai not only resigned from parliament in protest, but took the unprecedented step of quitting the Unified CPN-Maoist party and vowing to create his own party.
Current chaos put in context: Seven years in the making of a new constitution
The writing of a new constitution began in 2008 after the Maoist party won the national elections. Gaining parliamentary control, the Maoist-led government abolished the monarchy and proclaimed Nepal to be a republic. The people were promised a new constitution by 2010. That was not to be. Instead, an endless succession of power-grabbing fights between parties sidelined the politicians real job: to pen a charter in a timely fashion that included defining what a federal state would look like in 21st century Nepal. The tragic 2015 earthquakes seemed to jolt parliament into action and a rapid promulgation ensued.
The Madhesi-Tharu conflict
Even before the new constitution became law, parliament’s efforts were marred by weeks of violent protests in the southern plains. Strong opposition from minority groups, particularly from the Madhesis and Tharus, arose over what they defined as centuries of marginalization and discrimination from the Kathmandu-centric political power base. In the last several weeks, over 40 people – including police – have either been bludgeoned to death, butchered, shot or set on fire. The southern groups object to the high-handed manner in which the country has been carved up into seven federal states, which, according to much of the southern population, puts them at a huge disadvantage. They want more states and representation equal to their population – an ethnic-based model of federalism – rather than the voted-in geographical model that favors the continuation of the old ruling elites. Over half of Nepal’s population resides in the south.
After the September 20 promulgation, southern towns struck back.
Protestors in Birgunj, an Indian border town and a key checkpoint for oil and food imports coming into Nepal, set up a blockade. Shiva Patel, general secretary of the regional Sadbhawana political party, told AFP, "We blocked the crossing overnight and we will not budge until the government listens to us and makes changes to these new [federal] borders in the constitution.” Normally, hundreds of trucks and oil tankers from India would pass through the Birgunj checkpoint overnight. That has been stopped. "The blockade is our last resort to make the government understand our demands," Patel added.
The movement of cargo through other border checkpoints has also significantly decreased.
On September 23, due to the upheaval in southern Nepal, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala announced that he was canceling his scheduled trip to a meeting at the United Nation’s General Assembly. Instead, on Saturday, he made a trip to Tikapur, the site of particularly gruesome carnage on August 24. Tikapur, located in Kailali District, has been fuming and in fear since then. The PM made the trip accompanied by Nepal Army Chief Rajendra Chhetri.
To complicate matters, in Rautahat District, members of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), Nepal Sadbhawana Party and other Madhesi parties have staged four days of demonstrations at the Nepal-India border near Gaur, the district headquarters of Rautahat. The protesters staged a sit-in at the bordering bridge between Gaur and Bairgania (in the Indian district of Bihar). Cargo vehicles from India have come to a complete halt.
Who’s to blame for the blockades?
The blame-game between India and Nepal is in full swing. According to Reuters, India has accused the Nepalese government of being responsible because Nepal allows cargo trucks and oil tankers to travel unescorted: “ ‘Our freight forwarders and transporters... [have] voiced complaints about the difficulties they are facing in movement within Nepal and their security fears, due to the prevailing unrest,’ said New Delhi in a statement released Friday. … ‘Nepalese leadership needs to address the causes underlying the present state of confrontation credibly and effectively. Issues of differences should be resolved.’"
On the other hand, Shishir Dhungana, the director-general of customs in Nepal, blames India, saying that “toughened Indian security measures are also slowing down trade. ‘Things have slowed down because Indian customs and security officials are carrying out more checks than usual,’ he said.”
Whoever bears the responsibility for the standstill, the fact remains that Nepal’s petrol supply has dwindled due to the continuous obstruction of products coming in from India and is now approaching crisis level.
Beginning today, Nepal Oil Corporation (the state-owned monopoly) will enforce rationing of petroleum products, fixing quotas for different vehicles. Two-wheelers will get three liters and private cars 10 liters per week. Microbuses will get 15 liters, minibuses 20 liters and bigger public vehicles including school buses will get 30 liters per day.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has enforced an odd-even license plates system of fuel distribution on alternate days. “Fuel stations will mark stamp on the bill book to implement the ration system properly,” said Nepal Oil Corporation spokesman Deepak Baral.
Additionally, international airlines have been asked to refuel their planes at airports abroad, citing insufficient stocks at the NOC’s Tribhuvan International Airport depot in Kathmandu.
According to Jib Raj Koirala, joint-secretary at the Ministry of Commerce and Supplies, “Additional measures will be taken if the supply obstruction persists.”
The Home Ministry asked the public to adopt austerity measures in consumption of petroleum products until supply returns to normal, requesting the people not to keep stock. Considering the possibility of black-marketing in the crisis situation, the government has also warned of strong legal actions against petrol pumps and other stakeholders if they are found causing artificial shortages.
Meanwhile, according to Kathmandu Post, NOC said it would provide limited supply of petroleum products to private petrol pumps starting Tuesday if the Indian Oil Company (IOC) continues to halt supply. According to the NOC, the IOC has halted fuel products supply for the past two days and it has not been informed whether it will resume supply from Sunday. Many NOC oil tankers are said to have reached Raxaul to bring in petrol, diesel and other products. NOC Managing Director Gopal Bahadur Khadka said government-run petrol pumps would get enough supply from Tuesday but private gas stations would get limited stocks.
Nepal LP Gas Industries Association said on Saturday that none of the refueling plants has cooking gas stock due to the “embargo” imposed by India. In a notice, the Association said many gas bullets loaded from IOC’s refinery plants have been stranded in India and there has not been new loading of gas from IOC depots since Friday. It has also requested the government to ensure smooth supply of the cooking gas.
Ex-Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai goes rogue
On September 26, Bhattarai resigned from his party and parliament, days after announcing his support for protesters fighting to bring changes to a new constitution.
Bhattarai explained at Saturday’s press conference: "Effective from today’s date, I have resigned from all obligations, responsibilities at all levels as well as general membership of the UCPN Maoists. …There is no option of returning to a house you have left, an old house, a damaged house. …I will now do what I can as a citizen of this country... as long as I am alive I will work for the country and the people.”
According to Lok Raj Baral, executive chairman of the Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies: "With the constitution already in dispute, Bhattarai`s resignation will... naturally encourage the protesters. …Bhattarai has been talking for some time about the need for a new political force to address the country’s needs... if a leader of his stature quits the Maoists it will obviously have an impact on the party’s popularity," Baral told Agence France Presse.