Briefing: Will a political dispute become a humanitarian disaster in Nepal?

By Jared Ferrie
Asia Editor

Eight months after a huge earthquake devastated Nepal and killed almost 9,000 people, an import-crippling border blockade provoked by a political dispute has sent prices skyrocketing and is stalling efforts to rebuild. If left unresolved, hundreds of thousands of quake survivors, many of them still living without proper shelter, could suffer shortages this winter.

Nepal’s parliament is set to begin debating amendments to a new and controversial constitution that could help resolve tensions and head off a humanitarian crisis.

After almost 10 years of political deadlock that followed a decade-long civil war, the constitution was pushed through quickly in the wake of the two earthquakes in April and May this year. The constitution was approved on 20 September – and it was hoped that doing so would free up the government to concentrate on reconstruction – but it was met with resistance from the start.

Members of the ethnic Madhesi and Tharu minorities oppose the constitution. Among other points, they say the size and shape of the seven new provinces created will reduce their political representation.

The Madhesi live in the lowlands of mostly-mountainous Nepal, on the Terai plains, as well as across the border in India. Many of them have – with quiet backing from Delhi – shown their displeasure with the constitution by mounting mass protests that have blocked goods coming into Nepal. India is by far the largest source of imports to the landlocked nation, and the blockade has crippled the economy and severely impaired efforts to rebuild since the earthquakes.

See: India border trouble blocks medicines to Nepal

Nepal’s parliament has tabled a bill that could amend the constitution to change the electoral make-up and the representation of various groups in political bodies. But it’s unclear if the amendments – even if they were made – would be enough satisfy the protestors. The United Democratic Madhesi Front, which has been leading the protest movement and negotiating with the government, says the language of the bill is too vague and needs to be changed.

“If it passed through parliament as is, it will not address the demands of the movement,” Upendra Yadaf, a UDMF leader, told IRIN over the phone from the Nepali capital, Kathmandu.

Using near identical language in separate statements, major donors from Germany, Britain and South Korea, as well as UN agencies and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have urged “all sides to address restrictions on imports”.

So far, negotiations between the government and the UDMF have come to naught and tensions remain high. More than 40 people have been killed since the protests began, including one who was shot by police on Sunday. As civil unrest continues on the border, and discussions proceed in Kathmandu, the situation for most people in the country is only getting worse.

"WFP urges all sides to once again allow the free flow of food items across the border to ensure that Nepalis, especially those who struggle on a day-to-day basis to feed their families, are not the ones who bear the burden of this protracted political standoff," Seetashma Thapa, of the World Food Programme in Nepal, told IRIN.

‘Looming crisis’

Even as Nepal struggles to rebuild after the quakes that destroyed or damaged almost a million homes, aid agencies warn of another looming humanitarian crisis. Fuel shortages are preventing shipments of emergency supplies like blankets and tarpaulins to remote communities, and time is running short, as winter snows begin to block access roads and trails.

Cooking gas has shot up in price by as much as 630 percent since the blockade began, while the cost of rice has doubled and commodities like cooking oil and lentils have risen sharply as well, according to WFP. The fuel shortage has caused “severe delays” in the organisation’s ability to get food to more than 224,000 people.

UNICEF has warned 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.

The organisation’s chief of health in Nepal, Doctor Hendrikus Raaijmakers, told IRIN that two thirds of medicines are out of stock at primary healthcare facilities throughout the country, and UNICEF plans to fly in $1.5 million worth of antibiotics and other drugs. “The health facilities, regional medical stores and pharmacies warn of dire impact if the current situation continues for a month or more,” he said.

Stalled talks, violent protests

It’s unclear how or when the border unrest will abate, allowing goods to begin flowing freely again. A polarised constitutional debate continues, and protests periodically explode in violence with different sides blaming each other.

On Sunday, police shot and killed one protestor in the town of Gaur, according to both the government and the UDMF.

That is about the only fact they agree on.

Yadaf of the UDMF said the protests were peaceful and that people only started throwing stones after police fired into the crowd to disperse them. He said a student protestor was shot and injured as he was fleeing and was subsequently killed by police. Yadaf said the killing was only the latest in a string of violent abuses of civilians by the security forces.

Laxmi Prasad Dhakel, spokesman for the Home Affairs Ministry, accused protestors of attacking a police station. “They have been throwing petrol bombs and stones,” he told IRIN. “Police were forced to fire, and at that moment a protestor was shot and he died.”

Dhakel dismissed reports by human rights organisations that implicate security forces in abuses and killings, saying that police have only responded with violence when attacked.

In a 16 October report, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of 25 people between 24 August and 11 September during protests against the constitution that began before it was approved by parliament. Nine of those killed were police officers, eight of whom were encircled by a mob on 24 August and “viciously attacked” with homemade weapons.

The police have reacted equally viciously, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented the shooting deaths of 15 people, including six who witnesses said were not taking part in protests. Witnesses said they saw police kill protesters who were lying on the ground after being shot. One 14-year-old victim was dragged from some bushes where he had been hiding and shot point blank in the face, according to the report.

Human Rights Watch noted that while opinions differ on whether the new constitution is inclusive enough, grievances held by the protesters are underscored by: “a longstanding history of discrimination by successive governments, which remains dominated by traditional social elites from Nepal’s hilly regions, against marginalised groups including Madhesis and Tharus.”

Regional politics

Nepali politicians have accused India of backing the protests and imposing a blockade along the border. Indian officials have sent mixed messages, denying any official blockade but warning that Nepal must resolve the political crisis, which would allow goods to move again.

Madhesis live in both countries and analysts say India is concerned that the protest movement, now in its fourth month, could spiral out of control and destabilise communities within its own borders.

“If you don’t address the moderate democratic demands, there is a danger of the movement intensifying,” said Prashant Jha, an editor at the Delhi-based Hindustan Times newspaper who has spent time on the border.

“The movement could become secessionist,” he told IRIN. “It’s a scenario that India wants to prevent at all costs.”

It’s impossible to know exactly what India is hoping to achieve by at least tacitly backing the blockade, the Nepali Times newspaper observed in an editorial this week. But the paper also accused the Nepali government of shifting the blame for the crisis to India while failing to address the issues being raised by the Madhesi and Tharu as it fast-tracked the constitution.

The Nepali Times listed a litany of government failures, including political wrangling that has delayed the formation of a Reconstruction Authority to oversee efforts to rebuild after the earthquakes. The body would allow the government to access more than $4 billion that international donors have pledged.

“We don’t really need India to wreck our country,” the editorial concluded. “Nepal’s politicians are doing it just fine.”

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