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Running on Empty


Visiting Nepal in the midst of its fuel crisis

A visitor to Nepal in 1954 was struck, upon touching down at the Kathmandu airport, by the city’s streets, which were “crowded with human beings rather than machines.” Cars were an inconvenience. They had to be lugged into the capital on bamboo frames. “What few there are pant, heave, and often break down,” he wrote. “They give the impression of having come to a secret place, at great effort, in order to die.”

I was thinking of those words recently as our jeep inched along the highway leading out of Kathmandu. A three-member documentary film crew was squeezed into the backseat next to me. Our translator, a local NGO employee, rode in front, turning every so often to point out the sights: first, a golden spire he described as a “monkey shrine”; next, a man who was trying to bribe the cops. It was early February, nearly a year after two major earthquakes struck the country, and we were driving to a Dolakha, a mountain district in eastern Nepal, to survey the reconstruction campaign. Outside the window, the air was thick with the exhaust fumes of idling vehicles. Obscuring what should have been an arresting view of the Kathmandu Valley were hundreds of motorbikes, waiting outside an overwhelmed petrol station for their diminished quota of gasoline.

Fuel was scarce in the country. Five months earlier, Nepal’s ethnic minorities, unhappy with their treatment under a newly adopted constitution, had begun obstructing border crossings between Nepal and India. In response, India had imposed an unofficial blockade on trade with Nepal, claiming that the ongoing protests made it unsafe for its tanker trucks to enter the country. 

Nepal conducts 60 percent of its trade with India. The closing of the border created immediate and severe shortages in food, medicine, and gasoline in a country already reeling from last year’s earthquakes. Only a handful of trucks had reportedly crossed the border each day, and the price of basic goods was skyrocketing. Drivers routinely waited an entire day for gas. A liter of petrol, which used to sell for 100 Nepalese Rupees, now sold for upwards of 400 NR.

Our driver, a lean young man with weary eyes, looked resigned. He spoke only a few words of English, but as he shifted the car into neutral, he mumbled a phrase that almost every Nepali seemed to have picked up: “Fuel crisis.”

Until last fall, the Republic of Nepal had been without a formal constitution. In 2006, the last Nepalese king was stripped of his power after a decade-long civil war instigated by Maoist rebels, and by 2008 the country was reborn as a democratic republic. Yet drafting a governing charter proved to be an insurmountable challenge in a country with more than a hundred ethnic groups and languages—and with deep caste and class divisions. An assembly tasked with writing the document was dissolved in 2012, following years of inaction.

Last September, renewed negotiations between Nepal’s political factions, prompted by the urgent need for a coordinated response to the earthquakes, finally led to the adoption of a permanent constitution. It recognized Nepal as a “multi-religious, multi-cultural” secular republic, gave equal rights to women and—a first for an Asian country—provided explicit protections for gay people. 

Controversially, the constitution also divided the country into seven new states. Legislators drew the map so that each state would share a border with India and function as an independent economic unit. The country’s minority groups saw the plan as a simple power grab. Chief among them were the Madhesis and the Tharus, who both live along India’s border and together comprise 30 percent of the Nepali population, which numbers 28 million people. These lowland groups argued that the redrawn boundaries carved up their territory and diluted their political influence, which would instead be concentrated in the hands of the wealthier and traditionally better-educated Paharis, who live in the Himalayas to the north.

Outrage over the new constitution flowed into the streets. Last August, protesters beat eight policemen to death with bamboo sticks and spears in the Terai region, and they fatally shot another officer’s eighteen-month-old son. Two weeks later, a police force in another Terai district found a fourteen-year-old Madhesi boy cowering in the bushes and shot him in the face. More than fifty people in total were killed in clashes between protesters and the police.

Meanwhile, young Nepalis unleashed their scorn on social media using the hashtag #BackOffIndia. Many accused the Indian government of sealing the border in order to support the Madhesis, who are of Indian origin. Indian officials did not deny promoting the Madhesi cause, but their support for Nepal’s ethnic minorities was presented as merely responsible geopolitics. Unless the power of the Pahari elites was checked, they argued, Nepal might descend into another civil war that could destabilize the region.

By the time I arrived in Kathmandu, India’s blockade had already cost the Nepalese economy more than one billion dollars. (Nepal’s GDP is $19 billion, roughly one thousandth that of the United States.) It was estimated that the fuel crisis alone would push almost a million people into poverty. 

I met a farmer named Gambhir Thani in a rural hospital in Dolakha, in a relatively bustling village along the Himalayan ridge. He was there with his twenty-year-old daughter-in-law, who had gone into labor two days earlier. Thani told me that public buses had stopped running due to the fuel crisis. Without a bus to take them from their village to the hospital, five hours away, the pair hitched a ride on the upper deck of a van in a wedding procession. Four guests had to hold onto the pregnant woman so she wouldn’t fall over. Asked how they would return to their village with the baby, Thani said matter-of-factly: “Walk.”

Traveling to Charikot took us four hours by car from Kathmandu, and much of that time was spent on narrow dirt roads. As our jeep climbed and crested the mountain nearest the city, we could see the clouds below us, heavy and dirty white, suspended over green terraces and tawny earth. Every so often a cluster of women appeared by the roadside, bent over from the weight of their baskets, which were overfilled with chopped wood. Our translator told us that the tinder had probably been gathered illegally in a nearby forest to replace cooking gas, which was stockpiled behind the closed border. 

We stopped for lunch in a hut that sold blocks of preserved yak cheese, as thick and hard as shoe leather. Local day laborers sat around small tables so low they almost touched the floor. The men were quietly eating rice with both hands—a gesture of politeness—and looked bemused when we walked in. Western aid workers have flocked to this area of the country, the epicenter of the second major earthquake, where locals view them with something like skeptical indifference. That day only one dish was on the hut’s menu: Dal bhat, a mix of steamed rice, lentils, and curried vegetables that could be prepared without gas in a rice cooker.

Outside, I noticed that the riverbanks were strewn with garbage. A nauseating smell of burning plastic filled the air. Even the tin shacks down in the valley, which seemed bucolic at a distance, were a legacy of the earthquake that had leveled 90 percent of the mudstone homes in the area. Now the sealing of the border had prolonged its ruinous effects. With no imported cement, metal rods, or thatch to rebuild their homes, residents were waiting out the blockade in makeshift shelters no larger than toolsheds. The tin’s lack of insulation left villagers exposed to monsoons, cold winds, and, in summer, a hot, relentless sun.

Nearby in a village in the district of Sindhupalchowk—no more than a cluster of weatherworn shacks with a clear view of the snowcapped Himalayas—a man named Dhankumasi Dulal was grazing his cows. I asked him to show me his house, and he pointed gravely at a pile of rubble. “It nearly got me,” he explained while chewing on a strip of hardened yak cheese. There was no need to specify that “it” was last year’s earthquake. Dulal now lives in a cabin of corrugated metal farther down the mountain, an arrangement that becomes more permanent each day.

As I descended the mountain, a woman in a paisley shawl with streaks of silver in her hair emerged from among the cabins, carrying a plastic bag with medicine from Kathmandu. She said that she had lost her house and cattle—her only source of livelihood—in the second earthquake. Then she nodded toward her son, who was chasing a chicken nearby. “Take that child!” she pleaded with me. “Educate him!”

Most of the eight million Nepalese who were affected by the earthquakes have yet to see any of the $4 billion pledged by international donors. And by the end of last year, only 5 percent of destroyed homes had been rebuilt. The government, caught in a seemingly endless cycle of impasse and disarray, has been unable to begin the reconstruction efforts. It took eight months just to form the National Reconstruction Authority, the government body in charge of earthquake relief, because of political wrangling over the constitution.

In January, the Nepalese government amended the new constitution to increase the power of the southern Terai region, which now holds about half of the seats in parliament, and to offer the Madhesis a share of public-sector jobs previously reserved for Paharis. The Madhesis soon after ended their sit-ins on the border, allowing India to lift the blockade.

It now seems that India may have overplayed its hand. Last month, Nepal signed several bilateral trade agreements with China that include the importation of gasoline, a move that would end the smaller country’s dependence on India as its sole gateway to the rest of the world. Nepalis, wary as always of commitments made by their leaders, responded to the announcement with muted enthusiasm. In an editorial, the Kathmandu-based República newspaper praised the deal with China as a “big boost to the Nepali psyche.” But the editorial added that their “biggest fear” was that soon the deal would be “conveniently forgotten and the political establishment in Kathmandu will once again start sliding towards India.”

One evening, after driving for almost ten hours straight, we reached a roadside hotel in western Nepal. We were tired and hungry and in desperate need of showers. The crew unloaded their Pelican cases, cameras, and sound equipment in the modest lobby, where the hotel owner blinked at us, shocked, from behind a desk. A small restaurant at the back looked promising. After days of eating nothing but dal bhat, I was encouraged to see dozens of other dishes listed on the menu. I pointed to a picture of steamed momos, Nepalese dumplings.

“No momos,” the owner said briskly.

“No momos?” I repeated.

“No everything,” he said in English and shrugged. “Fuel crisis.”

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