India’s unofficial blockade of Nepal has stretched into its 11th week. The price of this blockade continues to rise, and extends beyond Indian foreign policy. For average Nepalis, these costs are real and onerous. Fuel is three times the normal price in Kathmandu, and a healthy black market for both cooking gas and petrol has developed. Food prices are also up. But nowhere have the environmental and health costs been discussed. In light of the climate summit in Paris, they do bear mentioning, not least because their unilateral imposition is unlikely to yield the intended results.
The severe fuel shortages caused by India’s unofficial blockade of Nepal have caused a number of unintended environmental consequences. The lack of petrol has certainly resulted in fewer motorists on the roads and this is a good thing environmentally, if not economically. Traffic in Kathmandu and on the main highways has improved dramatically, but this doesn’t mean that air quality has followed suit. In fact, it has headed in the opposite direction.
India’s blockade has effectively taken Nepal back in time: Whereas most urban Nepalis have been cooking with gas for some time now, only the richest do so these days. Instead, restaurants and homes have large piles of firewood out front, something not seen in the capital in 10-15 years. This is problematic for two reasons.
First, Nepalis are once again cutting down trees in large numbers and, as we know, trees play a crucial role in capturing carbon and producing oxygen. Fewer trees means more carbon and less oxygen, not just today, but for years to come. Nepal, despite its increasing population and widespread poverty, has largely managed to turn the tide on deforestation. India, in forcing its friendly neighbour into a setback on this front, is also harming itself. Plenty of the carbon captured in Nepal comes from India’s rapid industrialisation. And the oxygen produced by Nepal’s forests does not recognise international boundaries.
Second, Nepalis are burning those trees and the effect upon the particulate matter in the air is both visible and astounding. Until recently, the trip between many Indian urban centres and Kathmandu was often a refreshing one. The air is typically better up there. But the smog in Kathmandu of late is reminiscent of Delhi. Public health is suffering as a result and these effects, too, will outlast this particular political tussle.
The problem, of course, is that India’s unofficial blockade is likely conducted in vain. Nepalis are both proud of their independence and accustomed to hardship. They will not give in to Indian demands easily, especially when they are being bullied. After all, it took them nearly 10 years to democratically produce a constitution that the majority of citizens, through their elected representatives, were willing to agree to. They now have a right to the spoils of that process,
good or bad.
It is important for India to let Madhesi groups use Nepal’s democratic institutions to register their discontent. Even if the Madhesis do not have their own state and face major opposition, they can still make compromises and come together with other groups to form a government. This is what the JD(U) and RJD just did in Bihar and it is precisely what one would expect from a healthy democratic system. Nepal is riddled with ethnic and caste divisions, and potential Madhesi allies abound, on an identity basis, as well as on ideological grounds. Nepali politics, despite what many Indian papers would have us believe, are not centred around a pahaadi vs Madhesi cleavage.
Also, as a democracy that eschews interference within its own borders, India may benefit from following that golden rule and treating others as it would like to be treated. This is particularly true because India’s soft influence in Nepal — including its recent and not unforgotten earthquake relief efforts — is much more welcome and effective when it comes with carrots than when it involves sticks.