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How to navigate the fuel crisis in Nepal

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By Hamilton Pevec

Special to The Sopris Sun

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Jan. 8, 2016:

In Nepal, few people are talking about the two major and more than 300 minor earthquakes that hit Nepal in April and May of 2015. The impacts will be felt for years: 7 million people seriously affected or displaced — of those; 1.7 million are children. Half a million destroyed houses and 260 refugee camps are hard to ignore. The earthquakes’ aftermath was tragic and hopeful — tragic for the lives lost, and hopeful for the unity that was born of the loss. That unity was finally realized when the Nepal government agreed on and signed a constitution. After eight years of disagreement, strikes and violent clashes, this could have been a time to celebrate.

Instead, the thing that everyone is talking about is the direct result of the new constitution. More than three months ago, to protest the new constitution, India closed the border and shut off the fuel supply to Nepal. India shut off not only diesel and petrol, but propane for cooking and food supplies as well. The Madhesi people in the southern Tarai region of Nepal make up 40 percent of the population. They are the ones most angry about the new constitution. They also happen to have very strong ties to India.

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As I understand it, India is demanding two things from the Nepalese government: A framework for the amended constitution, and quelling the protests. Amending the constitution should quell the protests, because those who are rising up are the ones the constitution alienates — the Madhesi population.

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Fuel crisis

The fuel crisis began while I was out of Nepal last year. The first thing I noticed on landing in Kathmandu were motorcycles lined up on the road for miles, strung with plastic string, waiting for fuel. Police in blue camouflage were stationed at the pumps. Even though gas prices were sky high, there were still traffic jams.

Upon return to Nepal, I traveled the familiar six-hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara, where my wife and I run Himalayan Yogini Retreat. The price of the bus ticket hadn’t changed; perhaps the tourist buses are subsidized, but I suspect they are just well connected. We passed many buses without windshields, or were covered in clear plastic wrap. We saw a variety of creative ways to rig up a temporary windshield. My brother-in- law, Shyam, explained to me that the broken windshields on the buses are caused by protesters in the Tarai. There was graffiti on road signs that said “hashtag back off India.”

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Arriving in Pokhara, I saw red and blue lines of hundreds of propane cylinders waiting to be filled; they were strung together with chains. The Fewa Lake Valley that I call my home had thick air from dust and wood fires.

Devika, my wife, had already been cooking on wood for more than a month when I arrived. It was the first time in my 32-year life that I experienced a shortage, particularly of the one thing that defines the state of our world today: hydrocarbon fuel. You don’t notice the impacts of a fuel shortage until you try to get that thing you need, and it’s not there anymore. The department store shelves are empty where there used to be knives or coconut oil. Instant noodles are now rationed. Slowly, the things we all need will run out.   

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I interviewed my brother-in-law, Shyam, about how he is coping. I asked if I could go with him to buy black-market fuel in India. He said “no.” He told me that it was too dangerous. When he buys petrol he goes at night so nobody will see him carrying the “gallons.” You have to cross the border into India, where you can buy at normal prices, then smuggle the fuel back into Nepal. One local bus had a big load of people and petrol that it was smuggling. Something happened and the gasoline ignited. Everyone died.

Oddly, you can now buy gas from just about anyone in Nepal. Three months after the border closure, more and more black-market entrepreneurs have dropped the price of gas for the average consumer. Shyam told me he got “the pure one, the good one from India. No mixing.” At the start he paid about $25 a gallon; now he is paying about $11.

I only drive when necessary, like taking my pregnant wife to get an ultrasound. I noticed on different days there were different kinds of vehicles lined up at the pumps. One day it was small commercial vans and Jeeps, another day it was only taxis, so they have some kind of system. We had our propane tank in a line for three weeks.  

‘Democracy’ in action

On my way back to Kathmandu, we took the usual tourist bus. We passed trucks filled with cooking gas and their armed police escorts. The bus stopped in a random and unusual place. I got out to buy a snack and to investigate. I followed two police in riot gear along the line up of buses and trucks to a crowd of about 100 people blocking the road.

Everyone shouted at once as more people stood around watching. One policeman in a red beret was speaking to the nearest person. Below the crowd was a line of stones and bamboo, a feeble but effective blockade. I had a hard time finding someone willing to speak in English. In the crowd I caught a few whiffs off alcohol, maybe a necessary ingredient for revolution? There didn’t seem to be any clear leader. I found out that the people of this area blockaded the road to demand cooking gas. They saw the trucks pass, but the trucks didn’t stop. They were pissed off even more because the propane distribution center is in their area!

A lone motorcycle tried to sneak around the blockade and people ran in front, blocking it with their bodies, screaming and grabbing the handlebars. The blockade opened briefly to let through an ambulance.

Riot police stepped forward and started breaking the blockade, lifting the bamboo and kicking the rocks away. The people resisted but was kind of half-hearted on the side of the police.

The bamboo went back down, and the police backed away. It all seemed very casual; the air was electric but docile, a strange contrast. Suddenly it escalated, and the police gave it another try, clearing the bamboo and starting to move the crowd. Just when I thought it was over, the old ladies stepped in and blocked the road with their bodies, stern faced and unlovable as mother mountain.

The local mothers’ group was now the front line and the police were helpless. Something happened in the negotiations and the police went away. Whatever it was, the people liked it. Were they told what they wanted hear? Is the gas coming? The villagers quickly rebuilt their blockade and the grandmothers sat on top of it.

As we all waited to see if the police kept their word, I spoke to some of the innocent bystanders. One college student told me this delay could make her miss her flight. She said she was living in the city and had no choice but to buy propane at high prices because she can’t cook with wood. City people will pay more, so the trucks go there. She told me three times she feels exploited.

The police came back and told the villagers the gas trucks were coming. The villagers opened the blockade, feeling happy and proud. My bus left before any delivery was made. I wonder if the police stuck to their word?

In this small roadblock of empowered citizens I see a microcosm of the bigger issue: if you don’t get what you want, strike. If the police give in to their demands, then it sets a precedent that has long been practiced in Nepal. Whether on the highway, or on the national border, temper tantrum tactics will either work or incite violence.

Adapt or …

The current seat of Nepalese power favors China. It’s possible that this may not be resolved until the Nepal government returns to favoring India. In my opinion there is too much pride on both sides for this to go away easily or quickly. It seems as if saving face is more important than having access to global trade.

I’m not holding my breath for a resolution, even when the smog of wood fires is choking the sky. The price of wood has become more than propane. Most trucks I see are filled with scavenged wood from lake and rivers. Shyam mentioned that the wood we bought for construction was scavenged from a landslide that had killed a few people.

The sickly sweet stench of old wood reminds us that a crisis like this is a challenge and an opportunity. Not using cooking gas or petrol isn’t a far step backwards for Nepal; most of the country doesn’t drive and cooks on wood anyway.  

I have embraced this shortage. It’s good training for considering fuel resources on this planet. My motorbike is parked. I walk and cycle more. I have planted more food than usual. I have more reasons to stay home, be with my family and wait for my baby to be born. I’m not worried.

Should I be?

Hamilton Pevec is a documentary filmmaker and former Carbondale resident. He and his Naplese wife, Devika Gurung, live in Pokhara. Last year, he sent several articles to The Sopris Sun about the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal and subsequent aid efforts.

Published in The Sopris Sun on January 14, 2016.

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