Nepal blockade may have created an enduring problem on the border: Fuel smuggling

This post from Raxaul-Birgunj border when the Nepal blockade ended, in early February.

A four-month blockade on the India-Nepal international border by Madhesi protestors left the Himalayan nation with lingering travails.

The blockade, started in September and ended on February 4, and caused enormous shortages and price rises in most parts of Nepal. As imports were disrupted, fuel scarcity pushed people to take to illegal logging and deforestation, creating a real threat of floods. Particularly hit during the four-month period were hospitals and schools. Reconstruction efforts after the deadly April 2015 earthquake too came to a standstill as loaded trucks were prevented from crossing the open border.

In Kathmandu, confronted with cooking gas shortage, most residents switched to firewood and induction stoves for cooking and heating. But this gave rise to further trouble. The widespread use of induction stoves caused electricity transformers to explode, disrupting power distribution.

A full recovery from this impact of the blockade, including from the slowdown of Nepal’s economy, may take long. Even a week after the blockade was lifted, there was little immediate relief for citizens.

Switching trades

Many fuel stations in Kathmandu remained closed. During the blockade, the government provided fuel only to emergency services vehicles and to private vehicles as per lots based on registration numbers. Now too, some rationing continues. The government announced that from next week, all vehicles will get fuel but within limits – 5 litres for motorcycles and 15 litres for four-wheelers.

The blockade by the Madhesis – a term for several communities living in Nepal’s central and eastern plains who have close cultural and family ties to India – also led to widespread smuggling of fuel along the border. The question now is: will the black market syndicate fostered by the illicit business continue in the coming months?

During the blockade, in Raxaul in Bihar’s East Champaran district, protestors didn’t allow four-wheeled vehicles on Maitreyi bridge, which connect the town to Birgunj in Nepal. Yet, thousands carried fuel from Raxaul to Birgunj in cola bottles and plastic jars of 15 litres or 20 litres on foot. Young men on motorbikes zipped back and forth multiple times every day, filling their tanks in Raxaul, selling the fuel in Birgunj, and returning for a refill.

Phoolvati Devi, who lives in Pashupatinagar, a border village near Maitreyi bridge, said the hectic ferrying of gas cylinders and cans went on through the night.

On the Maitreyi bridge, Sheikh Azad, who runs the Golden Gate Academy, a private school in Birgunj, was negotiating the price of 21 litres of diesel with Sohrab Ansari, a fruit seller. Since the blockade started, Ansari had switched from selling fruit to selling fuel, and had hired two children – Rukmini and Rambabu – to assist him. Selling fruit he earned a profit of Rs 5 per kilo. Selling fuel, he managed a margin of Rs 40 per litre on good days.

Hum jhola min bech rahein hain, woh bora mein bech rahein hain (What we are selling in bags, they – the smugglers – are selling in sacks),” said Ansari, hinting that the network was much larger than appeared.

‘Tel ki kheti’

In another part of Parsa district, at the inland depot at Sirisiya, Pitamber Patel, a farmer, had brought 50 litres of diesel on his bicycle to sell to truck drivers at the depot. “Ab tel hi kheti hai (It is a harvest of fuel this year),” he said.

Chain Kishore Chaudhary, a former staffer of the depot, was now a “dealer”. Boys in India bought fuel from gas stations and stored it at home, explained Chaudhary, and he paid local boys Rs 200 per trip to bring it to the depot. “We buy from Indians at Rs 65 a litre and sell it to truck drivers at Rs 75 per litre,” said Chaudhary. “On good days, it earns us thousands.”

Cooking gas cylinders too were smuggled at large profits. Dealers buy cooking gas cylinders of 14 kilo from Indians at the border at Rs 2,300 and transfer the gas into an empty Nepali company cylinder by simply overturning it, using a nozzle. Till last month, they were selling it to freight transporters for Rs 2,800, who then sold it in Kathmandu for up to Rs 5,000 per cylinder.

“This is Nepal’s progress,” said Chaudhary. “No, I suppose, this is India’s progress. They must have recorded fuel sales worth a year in just six months.”

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Farmworkers and rag-pickers walked through fields with fuel bought in India

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Nepal’s Armed Police Force posted in a border village said they allowed those carrying fuel since it helped tide over the shortages.

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Sheikh Azad, who ran a private school in Birgunj, negotiated the price of fuel with Sheikh Ansari, who sold fruit before the blockade.

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At Sirisiya Inland depot, dealer Biswanath Patel (left) bought fuel from locals who brought it here on motorcycles and bicycles. Patel then sold it to truck drivers.

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Manu Kumar, who is 15, had quit work as a labourer at the Dabur factory. He loaded a bicycle with 40 litres of diesel.

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Several truck drivers stored the fuel to sell it at even higher rates in Kathmandu and elsewhere.

More reports from on the Nepal blockade in Scroll.in here.

 

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