Shortages of Fuel, Medicine and Other Supplies Cripple Life in Nepal: One Neighborhood’s Story

From students to shop keepers to pharmacists, the people of Bagbazar, a neighborhood in Kathmandu, are struggling to survive with limited supplies of fuel, cooking gas and other essential items due to the blockade of goods entering Nepal from India. The blockade, caused by indigenous Nepali groups protesting against the new Nepalese Constitution has continued since late September, restricting the flow of supplies across the border.

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Shortages of Fuel, Medicine and Other Supplies Cripple Life in Nepal: One Neighborhood’s Story

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Nabina Shakya, 42, runs a small tailoring shop in Bagbazar. She has very few customers since the blockade began, and has not been able to earn enough to even pay the rent on her shop.

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL — This landlocked country has been cut off from its main trade partner since September, and the Nepalese people are suffering.

That’s how Sujeev Shakya, chairperson of Nepal Economic Forum, an economic policy and research think tank based, describes the current situation in a country still recovering from a massive April earthquake in which more than 8,000 people are estimated to have died.

Shakya is also founder and CEO of Beed Management.

Nepal’s trade routes with India have been blocked since Sept. 25, five days after Nepal’s Constituent Assembly adopted a new constitution (See GPJ’s story Nepal Passes Constitution, but Complaints Abound). Some of the country’s indigenous minority groups rejected that constitution, saying it marginalizes them and reduces their political representation.

Hundreds of people who are part of the Madhesi indigenous group blocked the main trade checkpoints on the border with India (See GPJ’s story Protesters In Nepal Block Trade Routes from India To Show Their Anger at New Constitution).

Inside the Story: Patience in Nepal

By Shilu Manandhar

GPJ Nepal reporter Shilu Manandhar gives a behind-the-scenes account of what it’s like to report in the midst of the hardships created by the blockade.

Read more

Nepal depends on the imports from India, Shakya says. The blockade has effectively cut off the flow of cooking gas, petroleum products and other goods in to Nepal, making life difficult for its citizens since the end of September.

Kamal Thapa, Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs returned on Dec. 2 from a three-day visit to India, where he met Sushma Swaraj, the Indian External Affairs Minister, and other officials in discussions to end the blockade.

But the trip did not result in an end to the blockade.

“No new agreement has been signed between India and Nepal,” says Tara Prasad Pokharel, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a phone interview.

Madhesi leaders aren’t backing down.

“The protests will continue until our demands are met,” says Laxman Lal Karna, co-chairman of the Sadbhawana Party one of the political parties involved in the protests, in a phone interview.

The impact of the blockade is widespread and it will be long-lasting, Shakya says.

“It will affect agriculture, industries, investment, import – export, banking and tourism,” he says. “It will take more than three years for the economy to recover.”

In a white paper released in November, Bishnu Prasad Paudel, Nepal’s finance minister points out that the economic blockade has exacerbated an economic crisis brought on by the earthquake.

No new agreement has been signed between India and Nepal.

The inflation rate has risen from 6.9 percent in July, the start of the current fiscal year, to 8.3 percent in mid-October, according to the paper. Nepal had targeted a 6 percent annual economic growth rate at the start of the fiscal year, but it is now expected to be just 2 percent.

The finance minister also says in the paper that the earthquake pushed 700,000 people below the poverty line.

Now, analysts say, more people will struggle.

“The blockade affects the urban poor the most,” Shakya says.

Bagbazar is a neighborhood located in the center of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city. The area bustles with activity. The city’s main bus terminal is located in the area, and the neighborhood is a mix of residential buildings, shops, schools, colleges, hospitals and small restaurants. It’s a microcosm of Kathmandu life.

Lacking Cooking Gas, a Restaurant Struggles

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Photo by Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Renuka Kunwar, 40, left, runs a small restaurant in Bagbazar. She can’t buy cooking gas since the blockade started, and is forced to cook outside over firewood.

Renuka Kunwar, 40, runs Lumbini Bakery, a small roadside eatery in Bagbazar, where she sells cooked noodles, dumplings and hot beverages.

Her business is on the decline since the blockade began, Kunwar says.

“Customers have decreased by half,” she says. “It is very difficult to run the business.”

She has been on a waiting list for cooking gas since October, when her gas cylinder ran out. Kunwar says she doesn’t know when it will be available.

In the meantime, Kunwar cooks over a fire, a process that is time-consuming. She worries about her health because she inhales smoke while she cooks. Her landlord refuses to let her cook with a fire inside, so she does it all outside.

“But I continue to use firewood,” Kunwar says. “I have no other options.”

Kunwar is a single mother of three teenage daughters. The restaurant, which she has run for four years, is the family’s only source of income.

Kunwar pays her landlord 10,000 rupees ($97) for the restaurant space.

But since the blockade started, Kunwar hasn’t been able to pay her rent.

“Everything has become expensive,” she says.

A packet of cooking oil, which previously cost 100 rupees (97 cents) now costs 250 rupees ($2.42), she says.

Cooking gas, which cost 1,500 rupees ($14.50) per cylinder before the blockade, is available on the black market for a much higher price.

“I cannot afford to pay 9,000 rupees ($87) for gas,” Kunwar says.

Kunwar is determined to keep her restaurant open, but she was forced in November to increase her prices by the equivalent of between 5 and 10 cents. But she’s worried that even such a small increase will discourage her regular customers.

Buses Limit Runs While Students Try to Get to Classes

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Photo by Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Sonu Khanal stands in the inner courtyard of Shanker Dev Campus in Bagbazar, where she is a second year master’s degree student. She lives about 6 kilometers (3.73 miles) from college, but it takes her more than an hour to reach the school because there are few buses since the blockade began.

Sonu Khanal travels to Bagbazar every weekday from her home in Koteshwor, another neighborhood in Kathmandu. Khanal, 24, is a second year master’s degree student at Shanker Dev Campus in Bagbazar.

She says the six-kilometer (3.73 miles) journey from home to school has become a nightmare since the blockade began. There are fewer buses and taxis on the roads due to the fuel shortage.

“I have to take two buses to reach college,” she says. “The buses are so packed that there is no space to get inside.”

She sets out early to ensure she can get a spot.

“If I don’t take the 5:15 a.m. bus I miss my first class,” Khanal says.

And the bus ride costs more now.

Before the blockade, she paid a student fare of 10 rupees (10 cents), a reduction of 5 rupees (5 cents) from the regular fare. Since the blockade, all passengers pay a 20 rupees (19 cents) bus fare, Khanal says.

Many students and even some teachers can’t get to the college because of transport difficulties, Khanal says.

Khanal is worried about her studies.

Shanker Dev Campus was closed for two months after the earthquake, and Khanal fears that more missed classes will prevent her teachers from completing the course syllabus.

Khanal lives with her two brothers. Her parents live in Itahari, a city in southeastern Nepal.

The blockade has affected every aspect of their lives, Khanal says.

“We eat lunch in small restaurants but most of them are closed,” she says. “So we eat biscuits.”

Khanal says the government could do more to ease the blockade.

“Politicians only think about themselves,” Khanal says. “They should also travel like us and face the same problems like we do. Only then will they think of solutions.”

Medicine Runs Low at Pharmacy

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Photo by Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Dipendra Thapa owns Riwaj Pharmacy in Bagbazar. He says that the blockade has led to a shortage of vaccines, saline, injections and blood pressure medicine that comes from India. He usually keeps a three-month stock of supplies, and has been selling medicines from this stock but it will soon run out, he says.

Business at Riwaj Pharmacy has been bad since the blockade began. Sales have decreased by almost 50 percent, owner Dipendra Thapa says.

There is a severe shortage of essential medicines, he says. Stocks of vaccines, saline, injections and blood pressure medicine that comes from India, are all hard to find or unavailable, he says.

Thapa says he has not received any new shipments from his suppliers since the blockade began in September.

“I am selling medicine from my stock,” he says. “If my stock finishes, I don’t know what to do.”

Thapa foresees a time when even people who can pay a high price won’t be able to get medicine.

Thapa, a certified pharmacist and health assistant, has been operating Riwaj Pharmacy for the past 18 years. His wife helps with the daily tasks there, too. The couple usually serves about 200 customers each day, many of whom buy medicine for heart disease, kidney disease or diabetes.

Thapa says he tries to keep a three-month stock of popular medicine.  But with his current stock running low, and his regular suppliers not receiving replenishments from India, Thapa now buys medicine from other pharmacies.

That’s not an easy task, since fuel shortages have made it tough to travel to find new suppliers.

“Even after staying in line for days we are not getting petrol,” Thapa says.

Sometimes, he says, he buys petrol in the black market for up to 500 rupees ($4.83) per liter. Before the blockade, a liter of petrol cost 104 rupees ($1) per litre.

The Nepalese government was wrong to rely solely on India for essential goods, Thapa says.

“We should not be dependent on only one country,” Thapa says. “The government should make trade relations with other countries too.”

Families Stay Home During Holidays

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Photo by Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

The streets of Bagbazar still draw shoppers and street traders, but goods are expensive and stocks in many shops are running low since the blockade began.

Dashain, an important festival in Nepal, usually brings two weeks or more of celebration. People travel to their home villages and daily life slows down.

But this year, Sushmita Karki says, the festival was a disaster.

Karki, 31, lives in a rented flat in Bagbazar with her husband and two children. The family planned to travel to Karki’s hometown in Dolakha district, but there were no bus tickets to buy. Hiring a taxi was expensive, she says, but the family did it.

“Due to the petrol crisis it is difficult to get tickets or vehicles,” Karki says. “I have two children and it is very difficult to travel with children during this crisis.”

The family stayed in Kathmandu for Tihar, a festival that comes on the heels of Dashain.

Karki says it was the first time she’s been away from her extended family for Tihar.

Karki says that she’s like all housewives in her building: She spends her days looking for cooking gas or some other cost-effective cooking option. She waits in hours-long queues without success.

Instead, she uses a rice cooker and a small electric heater for cooking their meals. An electricity bill that was once 1,000 rupees ($9.67) to 1,500 rupees ($14.50) now comes in at 4,000 rupees ($38.68) to 5,000 rupees ($48.34), Karki says.

Karki worries about how long the blockade will continue.

“I don’t know what is going to happen,” she says. “I hope everything goes back to normal soon.”

People Scrounge for Cooking Gas

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Photo by Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Bikash Lamichhane, 24, is the owner of Lamichhane Gas Supplies in Bagbazar. He ordered 70 gas cylinders from his supplier in September, but has yet to receive the cylinders. His stocks have completely run out.

Bikash Lamichhane owns Lamichhane Gas Supplies, a cooking gas store in Bagbazar.

In late September, Lamichhane, 24, paid 95,360 rupees ($922) for a supply of 70 gas cylinders from his regular supplier, a Nepalese company. But that company hasn’t received any products from its supplier in India.

“I have not even received one gas till now,” Lamichhane says.

And he has no idea when cooking gas will be available in the market again.

“The government does not give any information at all,” Lamichhane says. “I go to the company, they say there is no gas and they don’t know when it will come.”

Customers hound him every day asking for cooking gas, he says.

“I repeat the exact same thing the company tells me,” Lamichhane says.

Customers offer to pay any price he asks, Lamichhane says. Others think he is lying when he says he has no stock available, so he has started giving out the phone number of his supplier to customers.

Lamichhane lives with his wife, his parents and two siblings in a rented flat. The monthly rent for his cooking gas store is 9,000 rupees ($87). Since the blockade started, he hasn’t been able to pay that rent.

“Forget rent, it is difficult for us to even eat,” Lamichhane says.

In October, Lamichhane started selling water canisters from his gas shop, but he only makes 10 (10 cents) or 15 rupees (15 cents) in profit from each bottle. That’s not enough income for his family to survive, he says.

“No matter what, I have to keep my store open,” Lamichhane says. “I am helpless. I can only wait and hope for things to get better.”

Families Struggle to Eat

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Photo by Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Sushmita Karki, 31, a housewife, lives with her husband and two children in a small flat. She says travel outside Kathmandu is difficult due to the fuel shortage.

Like most other businesses, Nabina Shakya’s tailoring shop in Bagbazar has suffered since September. Customers don’t want to spend money on sewing new clothes, Shakya, 42, says.

“The only customers I have had are neighbourhood people who come for minor alterations,” she says.

Shakya’s monthly rent is 4,500 rupees ($43.51) for her shop space, but she has not earned any money on new clothes orders since October.

“I am stitching clothes for my landlords because I am unable to pay,” she says. “This is how I have been paying my monthly rent.”

Shakya lives with her husband in Bagbazar, a five-minute walk from her shop. Her husband earns a small income selling medicinal herbs from their home.

Their son is studying at a university in India, Shakya says.

Life has become incredibly difficult for the family since the blockade.

“After our gas finished, for the first 15 days we ate beaten rice,” Shakya says.

Beaten rice is uncooked rice that is crushed into small flakes, and eaten raw.

Shakya says it was painful to eat the rice. She developed sores in her mouth.

She repaired an old electric coil heater and began using it for daily cooking. Cooking takes longer, she says, but she’s grateful for the heater.

But they don’t get a regular supply of electricity because of daily load-shedding, with power cuts of up to 10 hours, she says. The family constantly looks for alternative ways to cook food.

They tried to buy kerosene. Shakya’s husband stood in line one day from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., but they couldn’t get it.

The family added its name to a waiting list at a local cooking gas shop. Shakya says the gas shop manager told her that if the blockade continues, she can expect to buy a gas cylinder in March.

Fearful of Cost, People Avoid Private Hospitals

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Photo by Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Sushmita Karki, 31, a housewife, lives with her husband and two children in a small flat. She says travel outside Kathmandu is difficult due to the fuel shortage.

The number of patients at Kathmandu Model Hospital, a 125-bed private hospital in Bagbazar, dropped since the earthquake, and dropped even more since the blockade began, says Chain Kumar Bajracharya, the chief of the central pharmacy.

“Patients have decreased by 40 percent after the earthquake and the blockade,” he says.

Most patients go to the government hospitals, where medical care is provided free of charge.

There are fewer new patients, and only the regular patients come for check–ups, tests and doctor consultations, Bajracharya says.

Hospital staff still comes to work each day, he says. They walk or ride bicycles, he says.

“We cannot hold service because of the blockade,” Bajracharya says. “We have to be here to provide service.”

But providing service is getting more difficult. The hospital is facing a supply shortage that extends beyond medicine. Even water is hard to come by, Bajracharya says.

Finding fuel for the hospital ambulances is also a challenge, Bajracharya says.

He says the government promised that ambulances will get 10 litres (2.64 gallons) of petrol every day, but the workers at the pump stations say the patients have to be inside the ambulance to confirm that the vehicle is being used for a medical emergency.

“We are able to use the ambulance only for hospital patients,” Bajracharya says.

Bajracharya says they are trying to find solutions to the shortages, as they do not know how long the blockade will last. The hospital plans to dig a well as an alternative to buying water, he says. He estimates that project will take a month to complete.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated the interviews from Nepali.