India border trouble blocks medicines to Nepal

Seven months after two devastating earthquakes, Nepal is facing “critical” shortages of life-saving medicines as political unrest along its border with India prevents imports of medical supplies and fuel.

Nine international aid agencies, including several UN bodies and major donors from Britain, South Korea and Germany, issued a joint statement yesterday urging “all sides to address restrictions on imports”. But they did not specify who the “sides” were; nor did they recommend specific actions to end the crisis.

Protests have been ongoing along the border with India since a new constitution that will divide the landlocked country into seven new provinces was passed by parliament on 20 September. Members of the ethnic minority Madhesi and Tharu communities oppose the size and borders of the new provinces, claiming those and other measures mean they will now be under-represented in parliament.

India also has a sizeable Madhesi population, and analysts say the government is concerned that if the grievances of the minority in Nepal are not resolved, the political crisis could destabilise its own communities and even evolve into a separatist movement that could spill across the border.

Nepal has accused its larger neighbour of indirectly supporting the protests and of preventing trucks from bringing goods across the border in order to put pressure on the central government in Kathmandu to resolve the issue. India denies claims of a blockade and has urged Nepal to find a political solution to end the unrest, which would allow border trade to resume normally.

Struggling to rebuild

Nepal is already struggling to rebuild after a 25 April earthquake and another temblor on 12 May. The quakes killed close to 9,000 people and destroyed or damaged almost a million homes.

Relief efforts that were already problematic due to the mountainous terrain, the poor transport infrastructure and the onset of winter are now being exacerbated by shortages of medicines and other supplies. Plan International warned that fuel shortages were impeding its operations to the point that remote communities might not receive relief kits, including tarpaulins and blankets, before the winter snows cut off access.

SEE: Fuel shortage threatens Nepal aid as winter comes

Aid agencies have repeatedly called for a resolution to the border crisis, but they have refrained from wading into the political debate. Instead, they have highlighted the worsening humanitarian situation and made vague calls for unspecified actions by unnamed parties.

“We urge all sides to address restrictions on the import and free movement of essential supplies including vaccines, drugs and other medical goods as a means of respecting and facilitating the human right to access quality health care services,” said the statement by nine agencies, including the World Health Organization and the United Nations Population Fund.

Another signatory, UNICEF, warned on 30 November that more than three million children under the age of five are in danger of death or disease this winter if the bottleneck on imports continues. The government has already run out of tuberculosis vaccines, it said, while stocks of other vaccines and antibiotics are critically low. Shortages of supplies such as food and fuel could lead to a spike in malnutrition and hypothermia, as well as pneumonia, which killed 5,000 children last year.

“UNICEF urges all sides to address the restrictions on essential imports of supplies to Nepal,” Karin Hulshof, the agency's regional director for South Asia, said in a written statement.

When asked by IRIN, the agency declined to comment on who the sides were in the dispute and what action should be taken.

In a 20 November statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office said he was “alarmed by reports of the obstruction, and destruction, of life-saving medical supplies” along the border.

“He calls on all sides to lift these restrictions without further delay and underlines Nepal’s right of free transit,” the statement said, although, again, it did not name the sides that are maintaining restrictions.

Political intrigue

Meetings by Nepali and Indian officials have done little to clear up the controversy – or to resolve it.

Nepali Home Affairs Ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal said that Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa travelled to India last week and had “very positive talks”. Yet, reassurances in Delhi have not translated into movement at the border, where trucks are lined up for 20 kilometres on the Indian side.

“Sometimes the border is closed. I don’t know if the order comes from the top. I don’t know where the order comes from,” Dhakal told IRIN. “Indian security people know at the border.”

India’s foreign ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said on Twitter that Foreign Minister Shushma Swaraj had assured Thapa that “there is no hindrance to supplies from India. But Nepal needs to normalise situation asap”.

Dhakal said some protestors had used “homemade weapons” against security forces. He said the government is attempting to resolve the situation through negotiation with protest leaders, whom he said were mainly unelected members of political parties. He suggested that they did not understand the constitution, which has been accepted by most people and is "the best constitution at this time".

At least 40 people have reportedly died since the protests began.