Less than six months after a devastating earthquake, Nepalis are suffering under an entirely different kind of crisis: a fuel shortage provoked by political unrest.
Nirmala Rai’s prime concern Tuesday was “everything,” as she surveyed her stock of cooking gas at a small eatery she runs with her husband and daughter in Kathmandu.
“I have two more cylinders of cooking gas now. I’ve already stopped serving meals that consume more gas. I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said, forcing a smile.
The fuel crisis that hit Nepal two weeks ago has taken a toll on what used to be brisk business for Rai. For the past few days, she has just watched as the number of customers dwindled, as people’s mobility became affected.
The crisis stems from political strife that began in the southern plains of Nepal, when indigenous communities that share close ethnic ties with India protested the way that state boundaries would be drawn under a new constitution.
The government approved the charter on September 20, leading to an intensification of the protests which have so far claimed nearly 50 lives, and the effective closure of the border with India.
Many goods that Nepalis need come from their giant southern neighbour, particularly fuel for cooking, heating and transportation.
Without these supplies, streets in Kathmandu are nearly empty, long queues of cars wait to reach refuelling stations, and stocks are dwindling in grocery stores.
“Last week I had to wait in line for four hours before I could buy two litres of fuel for my motorbike. Now I have no more fuel, so I’m just having to walk as I have no courage to get on those crowded buses,” office employee Bikash Karki said on his way to work.
“A blockade is a blockade, whether it’s official or not,” political commentator Bikash Sangraula said.
“After welcoming Nepal’s new federal charter as a milestone just days ago, the international community has mysteriously zipped its lips on new developments that threaten to destabilize Nepal once again.”
The government has been rationing fuel, with priority given to official vehicles. International airlines were also asked to refuel before entering Nepal.
The Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries said businesses would re-locate from Nepal to other countries if the crisis is not resolved soon.
The Indian Foreign Ministry has reportedly directed its agencies to allow some trucks to pass through with fuel and perishable goods. The effect of that has not been widely felt yet.
On Monday, the indigenous Madheshi protesters crossed to the Indian side of the border, and threw stones at Nepal police, resulting in another in a series of clashes in the region.
In Kathmandu, politicians were speeding up consultations for formation of a national unity government required by the new constitution, and were still wrangling over leadership positions.
“Our politicians should be sorting out the issue in Madhesh, instead of focusing on government formation,” said Muna Samphang, holding her toddler to her chest as she paid for some vegetables.
After a devastating earthquake in April that killed thousands, many Nepalis are struggling to understand how they have come to be victims of another crisis so soon afterwards.
“Who cares who’s going to become the prime minister, if we have no fuel? Look at how expensive vegetables and oil have become,” Samphang said.
“We’ve just had an earthquake and now this?”