Modi's Fuel Blockade Drives Nepal into Xi's Arms

1102_Nepal China Funding
A driver waits to get gas during an ongoing fuel crisis in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Monday. Nepal signed a deal this past Wednesday with China to import petroleum products, its embassy in Beijing said, as the Himalayan nation tries to boost supplies. Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

This article first appeared on The Daily Signal.

In 2010, Dilu Ranabath left Nepal to find work in Iraq. He took out a $4,000 bank loan to pay a fixer to get him into the country without a visa and to find him a job at a U.S. military base.

For about three months, Ranabath lived in a shipping container in Baghdad with 30 other Nepalese men while he waited to land a job. Since he was in Iraq illegally, he wasn't able to rent a hotel room or an apartment.

At night in Baghdad, he said, he could hear the distant explosions of bombs and the sounds of gunfire. During the day, he was on virtual lockdown, unable to move freely due to his illegal immigration status and the threat of terrorism.

"Iraq was a very scary place," said Ranabath, who is now manager of the Silver Oaks Inn in the Nepali town of Pokhara, during an interview. "But I made a lot more money than I could in Nepal."

Ranabath eventually secured a job with the ITT Corporation, a U.S.-based civilian defense contractor, working maintenance at the U.S. military's Tallil Air Base. Ranabath worked in Iraq until U.S. forces withdrew in December 2011 and ITT's contract ended.

Ranabath's first-year salary paid back the $4,000 loan. And when he returned to Nepal in 2012, Ranabath admits most of the money that he saved up from the second year went toward his wedding.

"It was worth it," he said with a smirk.

Today, Ranabath has a wife and a 2-year-old son who live in an apartment he rents in Pokhara. He works 15 to 16 hours a day, but that still isn't enough to make ends meet, he said. In the wake of the devastating April 2015 earthquake and India's ongoing blockade of fuel into Nepal, the tourism economy, upon which Ranabath relies to support his young family, has dried up.

"It's been a tough year for us," Ranabath said. "First it was the earthquake, then the fuel shortage. Now there are no tourists. And if there are no tourists, there is no business."

Trekking and mountaineering are the lifeblood of Pokhara's economy. Normally, the Silver Oaks Inn is at maximum occupancy in October. Now, Ranabath said, only about a quarter of the rooms are filled. He's had to lay off half his staff, reducing the number from 25 to 12, to account for the lost revenue. Even now, he said, the hotel is barely breaking even. Consequently, Ranabath is once again considering going abroad to find work.

"If it stays like this, I'll have to leave," he said. "I could go to Dubai, Qatar or Afghanistan to work. At least there I could get a good job for a few years."

One-Two Punch

The April 2015 earthquake was one of the most destructive in Nepal's history. It killed more than 9,000 people and displaced about 450,000. Centuries-old monuments crumbled in Kathmandu, and massive landslides and avalanches swept through the Himalayas, including an avalanche at Mount Everest base camp that killed at least 20 mountaineers and Sherpas.

The devastation was extensive, but Nepal's infrastructure was not irreparably damaged. Six months later, Kathmandu's streets are clear of rubble and its monuments are being rebuilt. The streets are clogged with cars, motorcycles, rickshaws and cows. In parts of the city, including the touristy Thamel district (a hangout for hippies and mountaineers), the earthquake's impacts are practically invisible.

Shop owners push their wares and rickshaw drivers trail tourists, repeatedly asking if they need a ride and apparently deaf to the word "No." Bars serving Everest beer are open late into the night as local bands play covers of ever-popular American songs like "Hotel California." It's the same old Kathmandu.

And outside the Nepalese capital, life is also returning to normal. The road connecting Kathmandu to Pokhara, a major tourist artery, is clear and appears undamaged. Roadside cafés are open for business, serving buffets of dal bhat (lentils and rice) and naan.

Nepal's tourism industry is back up and running. The problem, however, is that in places like Pokhara, where October is high tourism season, there just aren't that many tourists. Adding to Nepal's woes, recent protests over Nepal's new constitution—adopted September 20—spurred neighboring India to block transport trucks from entering Nepal, creating a nationwide fuel shortage that threatens to derail Nepal's earthquake recovery.

"There haven't been any tourists," sa Shiva Shunar, 35, a jewelry shop owner in Pokhara.

Shunar has a wife and an 8-month-old daughter. Monthly rent for his jewelry shop on Lakeside, Pokhara's main drag, is about $150, which he hasn't been able to pay for months. He said that due to the food shortage he has to cook all his meals over a wood fire.

"This year has felt like taking a Mike Tyson punch," Shunar said.

Nepal gets 60 percent of all imports and nearly all of its oil from India. India cut its flow of transport trucks into Nepal after protests against Nepal's new constitution erupted in villages along Nepal's southern border with India at the end of September. More than 40 people died in related violence.

The protesters claimed Nepal's new constitution left Nepal's southern border territories, which have close ethnic ties to India, under-represented in Nepal's parliament and showed preference to northern highland territories.

India has denied blockading fuel supplies into Nepal, claiming protesters in southern Nepal were blocking the shipments. The Indian government issued a statement expressing concern over the protests and ensuing violence, as well as for the safety of its truck drivers who transport goods into Nepal.

Nepalese officials claim, however, that India has limited its fuel shipments to punish Nepal for its new constitution. Kathmandu has labeled India's fuel blockade an infringement in Nepal's internal affairs.

Pushback

In some respects, evidence of the fuel shortage in Nepal is currently more ubiquitous than that of earthquake damage.

Some airlines have canceled flights to Kathmandu since the fuel shortage began, while others have had to reroute flights to refuel outside Nepal.

Prepaid taxi stands at Kathmandu airport are shut down, and taxi drivers no longer accept only one fare, cramming as many customers as possible into their cabs to minimize trips back and forth to the airport.

Gas lines in Kathmandu stretch for kilometers and last for days. One taxi driver claimed he had to wait in line for a week to fill up his cab. Taxi prices have quintupled, and there are fewer buses running every day between Kathmandu and Pokhara.

Even before the earthquake or fuel crisis, the tops of buses in Nepal were frequently crowded with passengers sitting in luggage racks. The typical cost to sit on top of a bus from Pokhara to Nepal was about 500 Nepali rupees (about $5). Since the fuel shortage, that price has jumped to more than 1,000 rupees.

Trucks transporting food are also stuck at the Indian border, creating a shortage of staples such as rice. Restaurants in Kathmandu and Pokhara are now offering limited menus, and the remaining items are typically more expensive than usual.

Many Nepalese citizens have turned to burning wood to cook since there is not enough fuel for gas stoves and ovens. "It's a very big problem," Shunar said. "We can only eat very simple things at home now."

Kathmandu has implemented fuel-rationing measures, limiting the fuel available to private vehicles. But many in Nepal claim rationing has created a fuel black market. In Pokhara, gas prices have gone up from about 100 Nepali rupees a liter (about $1) to more than 500 rupees (about $5). Consequently, prices on almost everything, from beer to eggs, have increased.

While the fuel shortage is usually nothing more than an inconvenience for foreign visitors, the blockade has strained the resources of Nepal's citizens to make ends meet and stifled the tourism industry, which is a key pillar of Nepal's economy.

In 2014, about 800,000 tourists visited Nepal. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism accounts for about 8.2 percent of the country's GDP. Tourism directly supports more than half a million jobs in Nepal (which has an unemployment rate of about 38 percent), and travel and tourism collectively support about 7 percent of the total jobs in Nepal.

The Indian blockade has also ignited anti-Indian sentiment across Nepal. Protesters in Kathmandu rallying against the blockade chanted anti-Indian slogans, and buildings from Kathmandu to Pokhara are spray-painted with the graffiti: "#BackOffIndia."

"We are all mad at Modi," Shunar said, referring to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"I'm done with India," he added. "If I were prime minister, I'd build a great wall on the border with India."

Nepal, which is wedged between India and China, has long had to balance relations with its more powerful neighbors. Nepal's economic reliance on India increased after the earthquake destroyed land transport routes into China. And while India remains Nepal's No. 1 trading partner, China overtook India in 2014 as Nepal's top foreign investor. The fuel shortage and the anti-Indian sentiment it has ignited have prompted some in Nepal to desire closer ties with China.

"Maybe if we do more business with China, it would be better," Ranabath said. "Being closer with China would be good for Nepal."

Sucker Punch

The fuel shortage has hampered ongoing relief efforts to many of Nepal's remote mountain villages, which were the hardest hit by the earthquake.

"Acute shortages of fuel supplies continue to impede planned deliveries to affected villages and trailheads for onward transportation using mules and porters," Jamie McGoldrick, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Nepal, said in a statement.

With winter coming, many of the trails used to transport supplies to remote mountain villages, which cannot be accessed by air or wheeled vehicles, will soon be covered in snow and impassable. Therefore, the timeframe to deliver vital supplies to many hard-hit areas is dwindling. And without enough fuel to truck supplies to trailheads, a lot of vital aid, including hundreds of tons of food, will spend the winter in warehouses.

"Only a small time window remains before the available land access trails become closed in the coming weeks," McGoldrick said. "Due to limited availability to conduct deliveries by road and air during the recent monsoon season, a backlog of 1,200 MT [metric tons] of shelter and non-food item supplies is awaiting delivery to earthquake-affected population."

The Gurkha Welfare Trust, a British nongovernmental organization that provides aid to Gurkha veterans, has been providing earthquake relief aid to remote mountain villages. (The British army's 200-year-old Brigade of Gurkhas comprises soldiers from Nepal.)

The fuel shortage has affected the group's operations, mainly due to limited fuel for transportation and a lack of supplies. "Medical supplies are currently difficult to obtain, although we have reserve supplies so it's not yet a crisis for us," Alex Pope, communications officer for The Gurkha Welfare Trust, told The Daily Signal.

Tough Choices

Pokhara sits on Phewa Lake, about 124 miles west of Kathmandu. Even though the climate is hot and muggy, and the terrain is covered in tropical jungle, the rock and ice spires of the Annapurna massif loom nearby. Historically, Pokhara was a key stop on trade routes through the Himalayas from Tibet to India. The old trade routes were cut off, however, following China's invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the war between India and China (the Sino-Indian War) in 1962.

Pokhara gained fame among Westerners during the 1960s and 1970s as a favorite stop along the "hippy trail" across South Asia. (Pokhara is one of several places in Nepal claiming to be the place where Jimi Hendrix wrote "Purple Haze.") On Pokhara's streets one still spots tattooed Western septuagenarians—with long knotted hair, gray beards and bloodshot eyes—who just never went home.

With a population of about 250,000, Pokhara is Nepal's second largest city and a popular tourist destination from which trekkers embark for treks in the Annapurna and Mustang regions of the Himalaya. It's also an adventure sports mecca. The skies over the city are dotted with paragliders and the jungle canopies are draped in zip lines. Ultralight aircraft launch from Pokhara's airport for flights into the Annapurna Sanctuary—a spectacular bowl of glaciated Himalayan peaks, including Annapurna, the 10th highest mountain in the world.

Pokhara was spared from major damage in the earthquake. But months later during the monsoon season, massive landslides cut down the slopes of the low mountains surrounding Phewa Lake. Dozens were killed as the flanks of mountains loosened by the earthquake finally gave way under the monsoon rain.

Reflecting the combined impact of the earthquake and the fuel shortage on Nepal's tourism economy, the streets of Pokhara are eerily quiet this October, a sharp contrast from the crowds typical in the tourism high season.

Ranabath is reluctant to leave behind his wife and child to work abroad, and he is nervous about potentially going to Afghanistan, another warzone, where he knows the risks are high. Yet it is hard to resist the opportunity to make more money in two years of work abroad than he might make in a decade in Nepal.

"The salary I make is just not enough," Ranabath said. "If tourists come, then yes, it's enough. But now, it's very hard. It's been a year of very bad things. It's hard to believe they will get better."

Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is The Daily Signal's foreign correspondent.

Modi's Fuel Blockade Drives Nepal into Xi's Arms | World