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Politics

Minority protests take human toll

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Minority Madhesi protesters have blockaded the border with India, seriously aggravating damage already done to the economy by powerful earthquakes earlier in the year.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- As it grapples with the aftermath of earthquakes and aftershocks that claimed nearly 9,000 lives in April and May, Nepal is in the midst of a man-made humanitarian crisis that has choked critical border crossings.

     India and Nepal share an open border with reciprocal visa-free entry for their nationals. Some six million Nepalese live in India while Nepal is home to about 600,000 Indians.

     Nepal is entirely dependent for fuel on India, which is by far its largest trading partner and sole land route to the outside world. Months of protests at the edge of the landlocked Himalayan country have caused acute shortages of energy, medicine and other essentials.

     Nepal's ethnic Madhesis, who live in the fertile Terai plains bordering India, have been protesting a new constitution promulgated in September that they claim marginalizes them. At least 55 people have been killed in violent unrest so far.

     The Madhesis want better political representation and some federal boundaries reviewed. On Tuesday, they rejected a government proposal to resolve the dispute as opaque and incomplete.

     Kathmandu has accused New Delhi of unofficially fomenting the blockade because of its unhappiness with the new constitution. India has denied the charge, and said the problem is on the Nepalese side. It also said that an increasing number of transport vehicles are entering Nepal through less affected, secondary crossings each day.

Commercial ties

Indian Oil Corp. and Nepal Oil Corp. have a long-term fuel supply agreement. The protests have most seriously affected the Raxaul-Birgunj crossing, which normally handles some two-thirds of bilateral trade and 60% of fuel supplies. The Nepal government has asked that oil shipments be diverted through six smaller crossings.

     Deep Kumar Upadhyay, Nepal's ambassador to India, says his country is dependent on India for about 70% of its trade and commerce. "I'm in pain and agony because my people are suffering," he recently told reporters, saying that efforts had been made to persuade minority people not to protest.

     "The constitution of no country is perfect, but there is a provision for amendments," Upadhyay said. "Enough is enough -- now it should stop."

     Nepalese officials believe the economic damage caused by the blockades may have exceeded the $6 billion already lost as a result of the earthquakes.

     In November, the International Monetary Fund said the combined effect of earthquakes, protests and trade disruptions has "exacerbated the macroeconomic policy challenges facing the Nepalese economy". It estimated that real gross domestic product growth fell to 3.4% in the year ending in mid-July compared to 5.5% the previous year.

     Upadhyay said hospital supplies are running out, there is an acute shortage of cooking gas, and children cannot go to school. "People want to survive at any cost," he said, noting that Nepal needs some 2,000 truck deliveries every day. He estimates about 1,000 have been getting through in recent weeks, up from below 500 previously.

     UNICEF recently warned that more than three million children under the age of five are at risk of death or disease during the winter due to severe shortages of fuel, food, medicines and vaccines. "There is no time to lose," it said.

     Indian companies trading in Nepal include Asian Paints, Berger Paints, Dabur India, Hindustan Unilever, ITC, Life Insurance Corporation of India, State Bank of India and Tata Power.

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