During one of Nepal’s biggest festival season, the situation for Nepali people is extremely tenuous as tensions between Nepal and its southern neighbour increase.
Nepal’s new constitution, adopted on 20 September 2015, has created internal conflict and tensions with India due to concerns about how Nepal has drawn the borders of the new 7 provinces nations and in particular the division of two adjoining states on India’s border.
Initially, India encouraged the introduction of a federal structure within Nepal, reducing the number of zones from 14 to 7 states. The associated streamlining of Nepal’s governance structure along the border between India and Nepal would reduce administrative complexity associated with cross-border trade and increase India’s leverage in strategic and security concerns in the region.
However, India was in favour of the creation of a single southern state comprising the Terai-Madhes people. The Terai people living in the low lands of the south of Nepal are ethnically distinct from Nepal’s hill and mountain groups. Some say that India’s focus on a single border state was to protect its “constituency” within Nepal as the Terai-Madhes people share ethnic and cultural ties with India.
Instead, the new constitution established 7 states which did not follow the boundary of areas inhabited by Terai-Madhes people.
As a result, tensions have broken out at the border causing a border blockage and diplomatic stand off between India and Nepal. The blockade is preventing the passage of basic life supporting supplies, such as food, medicines, petroleum and other daily essentials, all of them imported from India border states.
What has caused these internal tensions?
People are frustrated by the haste with which Nepal’s political leaders pushed through a new constitution after many years of political instability and despite there being significant concerns raised internally. The Nepalese government failed to meaningfully consult with its people, providing only 2 days of consultation on the final draft. This has upset many internal (and external) parties.
Furthermore, the Terai people want to have a greater say in the political affairs of Nepal and fear that the division of the areas occupied by this ethnic group would deny them a voice in the running of the nation. Terai demonstrators have gathered in protest against the new constitution and demanding the formation of a Terai province.
The middle hills and the capital Kathmandu have suffered fuel and cooking gas shortages after protesters in the south switched to blocking supplies from India, Nepal’s largest trading partner, almost two months ago. Many in Nepal accuse India of supporting the protesters – a claim which New Delhi denies. India has expressed its dissatisfaction with parts of the constitution, but says it cannot allow trucks to enter Nepal while conditions are unsafe.
What is clear is that it is the priority of Nepal’s political leaders to resolve internal differences and address the concerns that have been raised with respect to the new constitution. This includes balancing the interests of the people from the mountains, hills and plains and the national interest.
The Terai plains are the nation’s most fertile land and the “food bowl” for the rest of the nation. There are also security concerns about the creation of one southern state, comprised wholly of people with strong historical ties to India. Given the critical strategic importance of the low lands to the security of Nepal, it is important that Nepal’s leaders negotiate a peaceful outcome which is in the best interests of Nepal as a whole.
India also has an important role to play in helping to resolve the internal conflict of its neighbour in good faith and diplomatically.
The blockade has stalled post-earthquake reconstruction works; schools and factories are shut; transport services have completely come to halt; international airlines have almost closed their flights due to the shortage of aviation fuel; and the price of basic necessities has soared. The estimated losses are almost $3 billion to the country’s economy and are impacting potential investment and growth.
These issues are a distraction from the important reconstruction and development conversation that is desperately needed in Nepal.
Date: 18 October 2015