From hospitals to homes and airlines to hotels, the impact of the 74-day blockade by Madhesi protesters on the Raxaul-Birgunj is being felt deep inside Nepal.
It’s been nearly three months since protests broke out over the new Constitution, with Madhesis demanding a redrawing of provinces based on population. Today, medicines are running out, hotels are burning wood for fuel and homes are starved of cooking gas.
In November, Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa told the UN Human Rights Council that the loss in economy and productivity due to the blockade was $5 billion, equal to the damage caused by the earthquake in April.
At least 70 per cent of Nepal’s imports from India, mostly fuel, comes through the Birgunj border. The Indian Express reported on Sunday that among the worst-hit by the crisis were children, with over 3 million under the age of five at risk of disease or death in winter.
According to official data, Nepal needs around 300,000 litres of petroleum, 450,000 litres of diesel and 200,000 litres of aviation fuel every day. Until the blockade started, around 55 bullets or tankers of cooking gas — each with a capacity of 1,200 cylinders of 14.5 kg each — used to be transported to Nepal daily through the Birgunj border.
Officials and residents are now confronted with 10-hour power cuts and a thriving black market in fuel. Yet, what’s really worrying the government and healthcare professionals is the plight of hospitals.
Chanda Rana, founder of Save the Environment Foundation, recently conducted a survey on the availability of medicines at 50 chemists near Kathmandu hospitals. “We found an acute scarcity of life-saving drugs, with many others going out of stock,” said Rana.
So much so, that leading doctors and the Non-Resident Nepalese Association got together to supply hospitals across the country with basic medicines.
“With the handing over of drugs worth Rs 30 million by Shesh Ghale, chairman of the Non-Resident Nepalese Association, we can manage proper treatment for at least four weeks in the capital and outside,” said Dr Bhagwan Koirala, head of the Manmohan Cardiothoracic Vascular and Transplant Centre in Kathmandu.
According to official sources, Nepal produces 30-40 per cent of the medicines it needs — mostly tablets and syrup — and depends on India for the rest. Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae had recently asked some doctors during a closed-door interaction to give him a list of medicines required to be re-routed or airlifted.
Officials said the government has also approached the World Health Organisation and Thailand for supply of necessary medicines.
“Those reporting to hospitals are getting treatment, but it will not be possible for us to help those who are not able to do so because of poor transportation caused by the shortage of fuel,” said sources in the Health Ministry.
Kumar Thapa, chairman of the well-established Alka Hospital, said he has been able to keep the ICU and emergency services going as he had maintained stocks of diesel. “But if the blockade continues, we will have a hard time. There is more than a 40-per-cent cut in the number of out-patients. It’s also difficult for doctors to report on time,” he said.
A more visible impact of the blockade is on the menus of popular hotels and cafes across Kathmandu, a regional tourism hub.
Royal Café in Baneshwar has launched a ‘blockade menu’ with the bare essentials while the Soaltee Hotel has begun using wood as an alternate source of fuel.
“We did not anticipate what we are facing today and it comes at a time when we were hoping for the best,” said Dinesh Bista, chairman of the Soaltee group.
Bijay Shrestha, CEO of the proposed Himalayan Airlines, said that “hotels, travel agencies and the airlines are the biggest losers and sufferers”.
Domestic flights were down by around 80 per cent till recently when Nepal Airlines started ferrying aviation fuel from Kolkata. Among the international flights, China Eastern, Air China and Sichuan Airlines have temporarily suspended operations.
In Kathmandu homes, meanwhile, gas stoves have been replaced by induction heaters, leading to a heavy strain on power supply. Officials said at least 45 transformers had “gone off” over the past one month against one suchincident on an average every month before.
“I had someone else wait in queue for a cylinder for two days. Finally, we gave up and I had a cylinder delivered home for Rs 10,000. The usual fixed rate is Rs 3,300,” said Bikram Ghimire, a resident of Kathmandu’s Swayambhu area (One Nepali rupee is approximately 60 Indian paise).
With distribution of cooking gas leading to law-and-order issues in many locations, the district administration in western Nepal’s Myagdi, came up with an innovative solution: select recipients through a lucky draw.