Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it’s off to work we go…or not…
(Written by Steph)
We turned up as usual the next day only to discover some disappointing news – the political situation was having an effect on the goods coming into the country from India, resulting in a fuel shortage. To try and save resources, the government had deemed that only vehicles ending in even numbers could be on the road one day, and odd numbers the next. All Hands informed us that they only had enough vehicles to get their full-time volunteers to the various work sites, and day volunteers would not be able to work today. We would have our site-seeing day, and would have to wait on news about whether we could start again tomorrow.
The next day came and went with no news, and after hearing that the following day would be the same, we decided that another day in the tourist hub of Thamel, “City of Smog,” was more than we could bear. We were gutted. We had added Nepal onto our trip specifically to volunteer, and after a slow start, we were hindered once more. We decided the sensible move was to go to Pokhara, a place everyone raved about, now, and to come back in a week, when the crisis would surely be over. We would have to extend our visas, but it was important to me to do what we had come here to do, and Nick, having signed his life away a few weeks before, was contractually obliged to do the same.
A bit of background about the constitution and the strikes:
I’m no politics expert, but this is a brief overview of what I have come to understand about the political situation since being here.
Following a decade long civil war, a peace treaty was signed in Nepal in 2006; it had taken since that treaty, 9 years ago, to get to the signing of this new constitution. The 20th September, 2015 was a date to remember.
The Civil War:
In 1996, the civil war started in Nepal, and in 2002, it got ugly. The Maoists (part of The Communist Party of Nepal), had been denied participation in a national election. They wanted to rebel against the monarchy, corruption and the caste system of hierarchy. They had cause, for sure, but they were also responsible for a huge amount of bloodshed over those years. They demanded food from families that could barely provide for themselves, and took children from their homes, and against their wishes, in order to enlist them in their rebel army. As a result, child traffickers were also able to prey on the fear that the Maoists had created, and told families that they could take their children to safety, for a price, subsequently selling them on as child labour, sex workers, or dumping them. The Maoists had control over almost all of rural Nepal.
A New Constitution:
In 2006, the peace treaty was finally signed, and the Maoists entered mainstream politics, under the understanding that they would put down their weapons. King Gyanendra, a monarch with severely questionable tactics of his own, was stripped of his political power. However, politicians have since struggled to agree on a new constitution that keeps everybody happy. So, this day was eagerly awaited by all and sundry. Not everybody was happy, though. An offshoot of the Maoist group were the cause of the threats to anyone on the roads the day after the signing, and the ones that trapped us in Syabru Besi. But they weren’t the only ones…
Trouble in Paradise:
Almost immediately after this, Nepal, a landlocked country that relies heavily on India for its imports (crossings with China were disrupted by the earthquakes) started having its petrol supplies coming across the border limited.
Now, there were two stories in the mainstream media about what was really going on. On the one hand, India claimed that their drivers were afraid of the trouble caused post-constitution; the Madhesi ethnic group were also unhappy with the constitution, which gave them little autonomy, and were staging sit-in protests at some of the western borders.
However, while petrol and gas were not getting through, trucks with other supplies were. Witnesses also claimed that there were no protests at several of the border crossings. Nepali officials blamed India for the shortage, accusing them of an unofficial blockade; India had always had a certain amount of power over Nepal, but Nepal had chosen to ignore their recommendations on a couple of issues regarding the new constitution. They were never going to be happy about that.
Life during the strikes:
As a tourist, a strike can be annoying. “Shit, how am I going to get from A to B, to do ‘blah, blah, blah’ of no real consequence?” Actually, I say this with the exception of the volunteer work hindered, because that is important. For the people living here, however, the knock-on effects of the strike are momentous. The country is suffering with a lack of tourism post-earthquakes (and by the way, it’s mostly specific rural areas that were affected. Bar Durbar Square and The Langtang Valley, you can still experience a magical time in Nepal – as a tourist, not much has changed) and businesses are struggling. Add a lack of fuel and gas to the mix, and not only are the incomes of taxi drivers and restaurants affected, but anyone trying to transport their goods anywhere. We saw hundreds (and I mean that literally) of vehicles queued up, seemingly abandoned due to the length of time they had been sat there, waiting for their turn to get some of the limited supply of petrol. People we spoke to had run out of gas and couldn’t cook for their families. In a country where most food needs to be cooked, this is a major issue.
At the time of leaving the country on the 22nd of October, 2 of the 16 border crossings had opened. To date, the fuel crisis still continues…