If anger could melt ice, Mount Everest would be standing bare and brown today — so angry are the people of Nepal with India.
The four-month-old blockade of its border with India has pushed the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom back to the dark ages, with the acute shortage of fuel, cooking gas and other essential supplies crippling daily life; and its citizens, still recovering from two earthquakes and facing a harsh winter, unequivocally blame the manmade crisis on the government of India.
The blockade was imposed by the ethnic Madhesis inhabiting the southern plains of the country, who believe that the new constitution, adopted on September 20, does not give them fair representation in Parliament.
And the layman in Kathmandu is convinced that the Madhesis have the backing of India, even though India denies having any role in their strike.
“Whether children will go to school depends on whether the van will come to pick them. Whether the van will come to pick them depends on whether it has got diesel. Things have suddenly become so uncertain,” said Meena Adhikari, a homemaker living in Lalitpur.
“We have weathered many crises in the past — earthquakes, strikes called by the Maoists, the massacre of the royal family. But nothing this bad, nothing. This is the worst time for Nepal,” she said.
Meena, incidentally, is headed for Chennai next week — for a pilgrimage tour of south India, tickets for which were booked online well before the blockade began. “Only yesterday, when my five-year-old niece came to know about our trip, she said, ‘Aunty, but why are you going to India? They are humiliating us.’ I asked her how did she know that, and she said that’s what they discuss in school these days,” she said.
If someone is happy in Nepal these days, it is the black marketeers. Petrol, which sold for 104 Nepali rupees for a litre, now sells for 500. An LPG cylinder, which cost 1435 rupees in normal times, now comes for 10,000 — if at all it is available in the black market.
As a result, taxis have doubled their fares, prices of essential commodities have shot up, and meals — from kitchens in large institutions to humble homes — are being cooked on firewood.
“The blockade has taken us 50 years back in time. It has caused far more suffering than the earthquake,” said Dev Dangi, a manager at the Kathmandu Guest House, one of Nepal’s better known hotels, which has seen a 35 percent dip in its occupancy this winter compared to last year.
The hotel has cut down on its menu, as have other hotels and restaurants, while many small eateries have shut, because cooking has gone back to its primitive ways — a painful process conducted over open fire. Many in Kathmandu called the shortened menu as ‘Modi-fied menu’, such is the hatred today against the man who had won the hearts of the Nepalese when he visited the country shortly after he took over as the Prime Minister of India.
At ten o’ clock on Christmas morning, I met Nirjana Sharma, a reporter with the Kathmandu-based daily Republica, at the Bir Hospital, Nepal’s oldest and one of the biggest hospitals. There, she led me to an open area next to the kitchen — the kitchen is under renovation after being damaged in the April earthquake — where, over two open fires, food was being prepared for its 300 patients.
“We have been using firewood for two months now, and we have to cook for 300 people twice a day. You can imagine what we are going through,” said Rajeshwari Pandey, who supervises the hospital’s kitchen which, during the normal times, used up one LPG cylinder a day.
“The kitchen staff complains of burning sensation in the eyes and congestion in the chest. They have been working without a day off because cooking over firewood takes much longer and also makes it difficult to clean the vessels. If one man takes off, another has to do overtime,” she said.
The hospital, she said, was initially provided with 700 kg of firewood by the Timber Corporation of Nepal, but the stock was long exhausted and now the hospital staff goes around looking for wood. The cost of firewood, meanwhile, has shot up from 10 to 35 rupees per kg. From the hospital, Nirjana, the journalist, had to go back to the petrol bunk where she had deposited her bike in the queue to get fuel. On Fridays, petrol bunks in Kathmandu, with the very limited stocks they continue to receive from India, give fuel only to journalists, just as on Mondays and Thursdays they refuel only school vans.
Since fuel at these government-run petrol bunks is sold at the regular price, it is provided — in a very limited amount — only to those for whom mobility is an absolute must — such as students, government servants and journalists. Others must depend on the black market.
Nirjana said her bike was at no. 391 in the queue when she had left it there at eight in the morning. And that the journalist at no. 1 had parked his bike right outside the gates of the petrol bunk at 3.30 a.m.
I offered to accompany her to the petrol bunk. We took a taxi from near the hospital. From the gates of the bunk, manned by the police, it was almost a kilometre’s walk, alongside a stinking drain and a chain of parked bikes, to reach Nirjana’s bike. On its rear-view mirror was scribbled ‘391.’ “The amount of fuel we get is just about sufficient for us to go from home to office and back. Hardly any reporting gets done,” she said.
“How much fuel do you get each week?” I asked.
“It depends week to week.”
I left Nirjana by her parked bike at noon. I called her back at 4 p.m. and she told me her turn finally came up at 3.30 p.m. “How much petrol did you get?” I asked. “Only 2.8 litres.” She has to make it last until next Friday. Nepalese, the resilient people that they are, wouldn’t let outsiders — or even themselves — know that they are suffering. Suffering, in fact, has become a way of life for them: sometimes the nature is the culprit, sometimes the political forces within their country, and sometimes, it is political forces across the border. So much so that a visitor to Kathmandu would find nothing amiss until he scratches the surface.
On Christmas Eve, in a street packed with revellers in the neighbourhood of Thamel, I made the mistake of asking a young momo-seller, after having paid him in Indian currency, how much the LPG cylinder had cost him.
“I bought it for 8000 rupees. All because of your Modi! All because of your Modi!” And then he went on to use adjectives that are unprintable.
Seeing his anger, I sought to distance myself from India as a whole and said that I had come from south India — from Chennai. “Oh, Chennai!” the momo-seller’s eyes lit up, “Dhoni’s country!” He shook my hand. I wanted to tell him that Dhoni was no longer going to play for Chennai but for Pune. But I let it be.