BEYOND THE blame game between Kathmandu and New Delhi, on the other side of a 73-day-old border blockade, the political crisis in Nepal over the framing of its new Constitution is beginning to take a toll on its most vulnerable age group — its children.
Officials, volunteer groups and healthcare professionals working with children have pressed the panic button with winter setting in and schools and hospitals crippled by a shortage of fuel for transportation, including ambulances, and back-up power.
And this, when more than 200,000 families are still living in temporary shelters after the devastating earthquake in April, out of which 72 per cent comprise women and children.
According to the 2011 census, 41 per cent of Nepal’s population of 28 million were below 16. And officials expect at least 125,000 births across the country over the next two months.
Describing the blockade as “inhuman”, Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister C P Mainali, who is also in charge of women, told The Sunday Express: “We must be able to find the way to protect the most vulnerable, mainly the children and women who are worst hit by the humanitarian crisis.”
Fuel forms a chunk of 70 per cent of Nepal’s imports from India through the Raxaul-Birgunj border. This vital link has been blocked since September 23 by pro-Madhes activists demanding a “fair demarcation” of provinces under the new Constitution with at least 83 out of 165 seats in parliament and “inclusive and proportional representation” in all arms of the state.
In Kathmandu, among the first to sound the alarm was the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which warned that more than 3 million children under the age of five in Nepal are at risk of disease or death in winter due to a severe shortage of fuel, food, medicine and vaccines.
“The government’s regional medical stores have already run out of BCG vaccines against tuberculosis. Stocks of other vaccines and antibiotics are critically low. The risks of hypothermia and malnutrition, and the short fall in life-saving medicines and vaccines, could be a potentially deadly combination for children this winter,” UNICEF said.
On the ground, this assessment is reflected at the deserted Nutrition Rehabilitation Home (NRH) and New Life Center (NLC) in Lalitpur, which shelters the malnourished and those affected by HIV. There are only eight children in NRH, which has a capacity of 24, and five in NLC with a capacity of 18.
Officials said these facilities are usually 90 per cent full round the year. “These two most vulnerable groups have not been able to get to the centres because of the shortage of fuel and its chain effects,” said Som Paneru, who heads Friends of Needy Children, the organisation that runs these centres.
To put this crisis in perspective, officials point to Nepal’s reputation as the best in the SAARC region, when it comes to maternal and child mortality rate: 170 mothers in every 100,000 births and 46 children in every 1,000 births.
Officials said that this was mainly due to the presence of full-fledged labour wards in most hospitals in Kathmandu, regional headquarters and most of the 75 districts. In rural Nepal, there are 1,134 “birthing centres” where well-trained midwives have contributed to the fall in maternal and child mortality rate.
UNICEF fears that lack of fuel for heating also increases the risk of hypothermia and death for newborn babies. “Children need to be protected from disease, cold and hunger. UNICEF urges all sides to address the restrictions on essential imports of supplies to Nepal. There is no time to lose,” it said.
It’s not just hospitals, a delegation of the Private and Boarding Schools Of Nepal (PABSON) met Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae recently and asked him to ensure that schools were not hampered by the blockade.
“We have had to close down our school for more than a month because of the blockade,” said Rabin Dahal, principal of the Bal Kalyan Vidhya Mandir in eastern Nepal’s industrial town Biratnagar.
“We run the schools now but there is no fuel for buses to ferry the smaller children. Again, with no fuel, their mothers have not been able to cook food for them on time, and drop them all the way to school,” said Dahal.
Last week, the protesting United Democratic Madhes Front (UDMF) announced that it would allow schools in the Terai region to run in the morning, and ambulances to move freely. But in the 48 hours that followed, at least two ambulances were vandalised in Morang and Udaipur — in the second incident, a child needing urgent medical care succumbed before he could reach hospital.
All of this appears to have generated a strong anti-India sentiment among the younger generation, with the southern neighbour being portrayed as a “villain” for allegedly not doing enough to convince the Indian-origin Madhesis to lift their blockade on the Nepal side of the border.
A few days ago, scores of children formed a human chain along a 17-km stretch of Kathmandu Ring Road, chanting slogans against India — the road incidentally was built by China.
HOW THE CRISIS GREW
Sept 20: Nepal promulgates new Constitution
Sept 21: Indian-origin Madhesis intensify protests demanding re-drawing of provinces based on population.
Sept 21: Protesters blockade key border point at Birgunj-Raxaul border, cut supply of fuel, essential commodities.
Sept 25: Then Nepal PM Sushil Koirala blames India for the “unofficial” blockade, India denies charges.
(Tomorrow: Families, businesses struggle for basic necessities)