Blockade: A blessing in disguise?

Murari Sharma

Nepali Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa has just concluded his China visit, issuing an 8-point understanding. The two countries have pledged to work towards a transit agreement, a long-term arrangement to trade in petroleum products, opening more border points, and facilitating greater trade between the two countries. It is a welcome development. However, what the Nepali people struggling for survival in the wake of the devastating earthquakes of April-May 2015, needed were fuel, medicine and construction materials now, not a promise for the future.

The Nepali people have been facing immense hardships now. No cooking gas, no petrol, no diesel, no kerosene. Shortage of medicines and construction materials. Schools and factories closed, lifesaving procedures halted, and development activities stopped, all owing to the lack of energy. The worst affected are the victims of the April-May 1915 earthquakes who have no roof over their heads, because construction materials are not available or have become unaffordable in the black market. It has created a serious humanitarian crisis.

At the root of this crisis is the blockade on the Nepal-India border, for nearly four months now. The blockade was triggered by the new constitution of Nepal, promulgated on 20 September 2015.

Several  Madhesh-based minor political groups boycotted the Constituent Assembly when they figured that their key demands were unlikely to be met in the new statute. Their demands, among other things, included one geographic state — and certainly not more than two — in the 22 plain districts, liberal naturalized citizenship, and apportionment of electoral constituencies based on population only.

India supported these demands openly. Its ambassador in Nepal lobbied the major political parties to accommodate those demands. New Delhi sent its Foreign Secretary to press the point two days before the new charter was adopted and promulgated.

The statute, approved by more than two-thirds majority of the Assembly, has provided for one state in the plains made of eight districts, one hill-only state, and other mixed states. It has allocated one constituency to each existing district and the rest based on population and barred naturalized citizen from holding the highest and most sensitive public offices. The disgruntled Madheshi groups went to the street against these provisions shortly after 20 September.

Since their agitation did not bend Kathmandu, the Madheshi groups began to picket those Nepal-India border points where they have significant influence. New Delhi restricted the flow of vital petroleum and pharmaceutical products and construction materials on all border points, even where there was no protest or picketing, and handed Kathmandu a 7-point non-paper outlining its demands for easing the supply situation. This is what has generated the major humanitarian crisis.

Kathmandu and New Delhi blame each other for this crisis. Kathmandu says India has imposed the embargo. The Nepali leaders are divided. Madheshi leaders, who wish to bend the government to their demands, assert that their picketing has caused the restrictions. Others blame New Delhi, citing obstacles in those plain districts as well where there is none or little disturbance.

Apparently, similar divisions exist in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government points its fingers to the Madheshi protests and picketing. But other players seem to disagree. Indian customs officials and border security forces tell their Nepali counterparts that they are restricting the flows on orders ‘from above.’ Opposition parties castigate the government for the utter failure of the government’s Nepal policy.

Speaking on a motion on the subject in the upper house of Indian parliament, key opposition speakers accused the Modi government for ruining Nepal-India relations, for sending Nepal to China’s embrace, and for supporting a small minority  and alienating the majority in Nepal. Some opposition legislators were blunter than others. Mani Shankar Ayer said the Indian government was backing a small band of Madheshi leaders who had lost the recent election and who enjoy no public support.

Both India and Nepal have looked to the international community for support, but only with limited success. Modi succeeded in harnessing British Prime Minister David Cameron’s endorsement to his country’s position on Nepal’s new constitution when he visited Britain. But elsewhere, he has so far failed to find such support.

Nepal has succeeded in obtaining sympathy from China, from Pakistan and to a certain extent from Bangladesh. Western countries have also expressed their concerns about the restrictions on the border. But Kathmandu has failed to convert such concerns into political pressure on India to ease up the supply situation.  Neither has it succeeded to capitalize China’s sympathy, as demonstrated by the offer of 1.3 million liters of petroleum products free of cost, by quickly ensuring the supply of petroleum products.

Which brings me to the 8-point understanding reached by Foreign Minister Thapa in Beijing last week. It is a right step forward for the future, but it does not give people cooking gas, petrol, kerosene, medicine and construction materials that they need now. Thapa’s China visit should have taken place soon after his first India visit failed to ease the Indian restrictions on the border.  Some may ask: What about the understanding under which Nepal agreed to buy one-third of petroleum requirements from China?

That clearly is a half-hearted white wash to mislead the public.  If Kathmandu was serious about it, Thapa would have come back from Beijing with a more immediately realizable result, not a distant promise.

It is clear that Kathmandu is reluctant to change the status quo, and the pointers are many. Failure of the prime minister and foreign minister to speak on the phone to their Chinese couterparts about the crisis, while they spoke to their Indian counterparts. Failure of Thapa to visit Beijing soon after his first India visit did not result in the ease of the supply situation. Sending to China only very junior level officials from the government and from the Nepal Oil Corporation, just to be seen doing something, not to achieve a breakthrough.

Some might ask, what about the Supply Minister Pun’s visit to the Middle Kingdom. Well, he went there, not as representative of the government, but of his own party.

Anyway, here is Economics 101. Each country should try to diversify its supply lines to ensure that supplies remain available at all times, even when there are disturbances in one line, and that citizens do not have to suffer shortages and do not have to pay monopoly price to one supplier. Increased and diversified Nepal-China trade will bring significant benefits not only to these two countries but also to India. Therefore, I see no reason why India should be unhappy about it.

Nepla will have supplies from more than one source for supply stability and reliability. It will have more Chinese investment in its industry and transport — roads and railways — that are already on the card, as parts of the Silk Road initiative as well as under the Infrastructure Bank. China will have additional access to South Asian markets through Nepal and stronger neighbor to minimise security threats from across the Himalayas.

India will also accrue significant political and economic benefits. Politically, the Nepalis will stop blaming India and their anti-Indian sentiments will drastically subside when their reliance on it decreases significantly. Now they blame India for everything — political uncertainty, failure of development, and disruption of supplies even when it might have been caused by factors beyond its control — such as wars, natural disasters, labor strikes, etc. Diversified supplies will mean stable supplies and less reason for India-bashing in Nepal, which is common now.

Economically, India will directly benefit from Chinese investment in Nepal’s transportation and industry. The investment in transportation will increase connectivity between Nepal, India and China, integrate their markets, expand markets for each other’s products and services, and increase the efficiency and productivity of their industries, which will then be able to offer better products at home and competitive products across the world.

Foreign Minister Thapa’s 8-point understanding will not burn the stoves, fuel the vehicles, and alleviate the paucity of pharmaceutical products now or in next few months. However, it may open the door for a better future of all neighboring countries, in the long run, staring with the new year.

Happy New Year 2016.



Climate change, intervention and objective reporting

Murari Sharma

After years of procrastination and tough negotiations, the Paris Conference on climate change has the other day clearly admitted in its outcome that there is a positive correlation between conflict and environmental degradation and agreed to limit the emission to 2 percent. Governments hailed it as a historic milestone, while environmentalists say the deal does not go far enough to arrest climate change.

However, the agreement is a lucky break for mother earth and a salutary achievement for countries around the world, particularly for the island states that may be submerged within the coming decades if global warming is not arrested. But elsewhere, there has been no such lucky break for decades, even for centuries.

For instance, unwanted and unwarranted military and economic intervention by big powers, directly or through their proxies, in smaller countries has continued, even though damage it inflicts clearly outweigh the benefit. We know for centuries that such interventions trigger conflict, shatter society, and bring disintegration in the victim countries.

Let us start with the end of the Cold War. The United States attacked Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein, killing more than 200,000 people, destroying the once a thriving economy, diving the country into the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds sections, and making it ungovernable. The next step will be the nation’s partition.

Similarly, the United States intervened militarily in Afghanistan to destroy Taliban and al-Qaeda. After 15 years of continued US military engagement, Taliban and al-Qaeda remain major forces in Afghanistan, which remains ungovernable as well. The Afghan economy is in tatters and society is fragmented more than ever.

The United States, the United Kingdom and France removed Col. Gaddafi by using military force. Gaddafi was killed and Libya, once a prosperous and united country, has now two parallel governments, one in Tripoli and another in Benghazi, and several insurgent groups. It has become the lawless gateway for migrants to head to Europe and its economy and society have been shattered.

Ethiopia sent its forces to Somalia and India to Sri Lanka, only to worsen the conflicts in the receiving countries.  Only a timely Indian withdrawal from the island country prevented its fragmentation.

Russia sent its soldiers to Eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, and these countries remain riddled with conflict and death. Now Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom have intervened Syria militarily. And Syria is headed towards disintegration, which will allow the Islamic State to consolidate its power and grasp further.

India, with the largest military and economy in South Asia, recently imposed economic blockade on Nepal, visibly in support of some political parties from the Nepali plains, but invisibly to consolidate its political and economic control, using the pro-Indian sectors north of its border. It might be the beginning of the end of Nepal as we know it.

Why do big powers intervene in smaller countries? Each case might have some specific reasons for it, but at the root are their economic interest and their leaders’ arrogance and hubris.

Western countries would probably not have attacked Iraq, Kuwait and Libya, if these were not oil-rich nations. Without economic interest, France would not have sent its military to suppress the Islamic rebellion in Mali. For instance, western countries have not sent their militaries to Somalia or Yemen, both resource poor countries being destroyed by civil war.

When there is no direct economic interest, the arrogance and hubris of the leaders of powerful countries work as a trigger for intervention. If Saddam Hussein had not displayed the picture of George Bush,  senior, in the reception area of a Baghdad hotel to be trampled by its guests, perhaps the second Gulf War might not have happened.

If Ukraine had followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s diktat, there might not have been a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. If Moldova and Georgia had caved in to Moscow’s wish, they would not have their territories occupied by the Russian forces.

If Nepal had accommodated India’s demands in Nepal’s new constitution, promulgated on 20 September 2015, New Delhi would not have supported the Madheshi parties against Kathmandu and not allowed to block the border.

How do big powers justify such interventions? Lenin has said lies are integral to statecraft. While he might be wrong about many things, he is right in this respect. In other words, such interventions are justified with distorted facts and outright lies.

To attack Iraq, President Bush and CIA director-general Tenet said Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons, though he did not have any. Hussein was also accused of working in collaboration with al-Qaida, though no such links were ever found.

Besides, while Western countries highlight Hussein’s brutal and murderous dictatorship, he seems to have killed fewer Iraqi people, excluding in wars with Iran and the United States, than the United States killed the Iraqis from 2003-11.

In Libya, western countries said they wanted to end civil war and bring democracy by removing Col. Gaddafi. But today, after so many years of Gaddafi’s death, the country has two parallel governments, in Tripoli and Benghazi, several insurgents groups, increased poverty for most people, insecurity, shattered economy, broken society, and no democracy on the horizon.

Russia has justified its military intervention in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the name of protecting minority Russians, even though most Russian in those countries do not want Moscow to lord over their countries.

It is not that only governments lie. Even the media reports are frequently contestable. BBC said American media reported on the second Gulf War covering themselves in their flag. CNN or Al Jazeera reports differ significantly on Middle Eastern conflicts; so do the western and Russian reports on the Ukrainian conflict.

Evidently, you cannot expect much objectivity from journalists when they report covering themselves in their flag or when they are embedded with their countries’ militaries.

Something similar happened in the reporting on the Nepal-India border blockade recently. The Nepali government and media maintained that India had imposed economic embargo. The Indian government and media asserted that there was no Indian blockade. They said the flow of goods was hampered by the picketing on the common border by the Madheshi protestors who wanted the new constitution amended.

The problem with the Indian narrative was two-fold. One, the flow of goods was restricted not only where the Madheshi protestors were present, but also at those boarder points where the protestors were never seen. Two, while the perishable products exported by Indian businesses were allowed to enter, vital petroleum products were reduced to trickle. Consequently, thousands of trucks still wait on the Indian side of the border to get into Nepal.

For ordinary people, something that looks and quacks like a duck must be a duck. But different rules apply for governments, diplomats and nationalistic media. But sometimes, there might be some aberrations as well, as in the case of the recent climate change agreement.