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Snaking lines grow as Nepal confronts fuel shortage

In recent days, during peak tourist season in Nepal, visitors here have been confronted with a strange sight: miles of double- and triple-parked cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles along the ancient city’s avenues. The lines snarl through narrow streets and block main intersections on the ring road.

Drivers stretch out in their back seats, snoring. Others join impromptu card games on car hoods or pass the hours with their cellphones. Food vendors cook and sell water on the pavement.

The destination for all these vehicles? Gas stations. On Tuesday, after a two-week ban — imposed amid a fuel shortage stemming from unrest over Nepal’s new Constitution and a dispute with neighboring India — the government briefly allowed them to provide fuel to private vehicles. In a surreal scene that began days before the fuel was delivered, tens of thousands joined the lines.

“I came with my motorcycle two days ago,” said Keshav Thapa Magar, who said he needed two liters, or half a gallon, of gas a day to commute to and from work. His tank was just below the two-gallon mark.

“My cousin, my brother and I rotate sitting and waiting on line day and night so I can go to work,” he said. “We can’t risk losing this spot.”

By Thursday, the long lines were back, apparently because of rumors that private vehicles would again be allowed to fuel up.

For almost two months now, violent protests led by the Madhesi ethnic group have blocked roads in the Terai region, along the southern plains that border India. The area is the gateway for most of the petroleum driven into this small Himalayan nation, which imports all its fuel from India.

Historically, the Terai, which is home to more than 50 percent of Nepal’s population but has close ethnic ties to India, has been marginalized by governments in Kathmandu. The Madhesi are demanding greater representation in the country’s new Constitution.

The pressure on Nepal increased two weeks ago, when India refused to refuel Nepalese oil tankers or to allow full tankers to cross the border into Nepal. Officially, the Indian government has denied that this constitutes a blockade.

But the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation has said in communications with its Nepalese counterpart that it has been instructed not to refuel Nepalese tankers. On the diplomatic front, Indian officials have suggested that all border crossings would open if Nepal’s government accommodated the protesters’ demands.

Nepal has struggled mightily since the earthquake in April that killed thousands and left millions in the central and eastern regions homeless. Now, as the lack of fuel cripples relief efforts, the country faces a new humanitarian crisis, particularly as cold weather sets in.

Everyone living in this city of 3.5 million is feeling the strain.

My son and I have become cyclists for the seven-mile commute to and from his school. The streets are full of bicycles and pedestrians. Nepali friends joke that their health is improving on the “Indian fitness program.”

For months after the April quake, conversations focused only on its aftereffect. Now I catch myself becoming obsessed with the world of fuel and the long lists of “what ifs” that are inevitable if the borders do not fully reopen.

Like many in Nepal who can afford to be, I am a hoarder. Since I arrived here over two years ago, I have grown accustomed to frequent shortages of fuel, and my garage is stocked with additional propane and diesel.

But these two weeks have taken their toll. It’s not just about our cars: We are a society inextricably tied to fossil fuels. Diesel power generators are essential here, as power cuts can vary from four hours a day in the summer to 18 hours a day in the winter.

Hospitals and water purification plants are receiving just enough fuel to last a few days at a time. International airlines have canceled service to Kathmandu or merged their flights. Many cafes and fast-food restaurants have closed, since they cannot cook without propane.

Fire and Ice, a popular pizzeria in the Thamel district, now cooks its secret-recipe tomato sauce in a huge pot over a wood fire.

Internet service providers need generators, too. In Kathmandu, 90 percent of businesses rely on the Internet, said Binay Bohra, the president of the Internet Service Providers Association. This week, the government provided the group with about 500 gallons of diesel — enough to last up to 10 days — and it has been promised about 250 gallons more. If the I.S.P.s go down, this country disconnects from the world.

In certain areas of Nepal, protected forests are being cut for firewood. The black market for fuel, smuggled in from India by entrepreneurial Indians and Nepalis, is flourishing.

When I heard that a mother in my son’s school had bought 42 gallons of diesel, I realized that much of this black market was meant to service the wealthy, not those struggling for a few drops like Mr. Magar, the motorcyclist waiting in line.

So far, the international community has had little to say about the shortage. Western diplomats have called it a “bilateral issue” between India and Nepal, though they have also acknowledged that Nepal is on the edge of a humanitarian crisis if the situation does not improve and that rioting could also occur.

On its website, the United States Embassy here did warn citizens that they should not count on being taken out by medevac helicopter if they are injured on a trek. Private helicopters are not flying.

Yet this week, the election of a new coalition government in Nepal has raised hopes that the political standoff underlying the crisis can be addressed. The Marxist-Leninist prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, has been invited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to India for talks, and negotiations are taking place with some of the Madhesi protesters.

No doubt the new government understands that this time of year is critical to its stability. In the coming days, Nepalis hope to travel in large numbers for Dashain, the country’s most sacred holiday, when migrants usually return home from overseas and cities and towns empty as people head to their ancestral villages.

A bit more fuel is coming in from India than at the start of the crisis. Some tankers cross the border every day, enough to deliver the 1.3 gallons of fuel per motorcycle, 2.6 gallons per car and 5.3 gallons per truck that gas stations are permitted to sell. But that is far from enough to satisfy the thousands who wait in line for days. And one crossing remains sealed — at Birgunj, the biggest and most critical border town, which acts as a funnel for imports from the Indian port of Kolkata, including the vast majority of Nepal’s fuel.

In the middle of crisis here, there is always religion. As I biked home through the snaking fuel lines, my road was blocked by a wooden chariot topped by a towering, 60-foot turret.

Here was the chariot of the Rato Machhendranath, the Red God, whose monthlong festival happens every 12 years. Thousands of swaying worshipers crammed a bridge and followed the god through a narrow, polluted river as dozens of men pulled him up a hill.

The Red God was on his way home, to his temple that the earthquake had destroyed. He is homeless, like three million Nepalis. But by completing his tour of the city and going home, many believe he will bring good fortune to the country.

On Tuesday, residents here appeared relieved that the situation seemed less dire, at least briefly. Those in the long fuel lines were surprisingly congenial despite some of the gas stations not opening until 11 p.m. and distributed fuel until just 3 a.m.

Suresh Khanal, a driver for NCC Bank, was philosophical. “This is the problem for the entire country,” he said. “I just have to stand on line and wait.”

And then he added Nepal’s best-known and most-used expression. “Khe garne?” Translation: What can I do?

Source: The New York Times

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