A fortnight after clearing the Tatopani border post with Tibet of the debris of the April earthquake, Nepal and China have gone ahead to reach a landmark energy deal which will transform the Himalayan country’s future energy scenario.
Details of the deal, signed between Nepal Oil Corporation and China National United Oil Corporation (PetroChina) in Beijing, are not yet fully known, though initial assessments coming from Kathmadu suggest that it’s a long-term pact which will free Nepal of economic and energy dependence on India. China will immediately supply 1.2 million litres of kerosene to Nepal.
The energy deal was steamed ahead by the acute fuel scarcity in Nepal due to the ongoing blockade on the Nepal-India border.
“Our hands were forced to secure an alternate energy supply route because the blockade created scarcity and scarcity was creating extreme social tension among various ethnic groups,” said Krishna Gopal Shreshtha, a senior member of CPN (UMP).
Meanwhile, pressure mounted on the government of Nepal from the civil society to act to ease the situation. The Independent Citizens’ Call on International Community to Address Humanitarian Crisis in Nepal, an initiative by leading editor Kanak Mani Dixit, said: “The fuel crisis caused by the blockade has cut the food supply chain, causing shortages in all parts of the country. It has disrupted transportation at the height of Nepal’s national holiday season, preventing millions from travelling to ancestral homes. There have been many deaths from traffic accidents caused by dangerously overcrowded public transport.”
The situation had briefly improved during the Dussehra season when trucks carrying goods and fuel from Indian ports and businesses were able to travel inside Nepal. But it deteriorated subsequently with schools and colleges shutting down temporarily as shortage of energy crippled normal life. The blockade remained in place and in fact worsened despite the visit to India by Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa who was sent to Delhi by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli soon after the swearing in ceremony of the new government in Kathmandu.
Interestingly, the energy deal between Nepal and China has been welcomed even by the Opposition party Nepali Congress (NC).
“The situation is extremely serious due to shortage of energy which has led to a shortage of pharma products and other necessary items. So the government of K.P. Sharma Oli had to act to deal with the extreme emergency in the Nepali society,” said NC’s Shekhar Koirala.
Mr. Koirala said tension has spread among Gurkhas with deep traditional ties with India due to Facebook posts which suggest that the Indian government will stop paying salary and pensions to the retired Gurkha soldiers of the Indian Army. “We are very close to an ethnic riot kind of a situation between the Gurkhas and the people of the Terai region, and, therefore, the government had to act and ease the pressure on the Nepali economy,” Mr. Koirala told The Hindu.
Meanwhile, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said New Delhi was ready to facilitate airlifting of the aviation turbine fuel to Nepal, as was done in past, and also re-route LPG supplies from the crossings that were not affected.
India, however, has refused to be drawn into the debate over the energy deal. Official sources told The Hindu in Delhi that they hope Nepal will first resolve the political differences at home to ease the blockade on its southern border.
Former ambassador and academic Prof. S. D. Muni however believes that the China-Nepal energy pact is a short term step which will soon cease to be a major issue once India-Nepal ties are normalised. “The Chinese are not known to sacrifice commercial interest for a long time. So the pact will not impact India-Nepal ties in a big way, though it obviously indicates that the Chinese are impatient to access the market of South Asia,” Prof. Muni said. Irrespective of the estimate by Indian experts, it is obvious that the Nepali political class has finally hit back at India for the blockade which they believe is receiving tacit support from India.