9-15 October 2015 #779

Remembering the 1989 blockade

Tek Nayaran Bhattarai in Nagarik, 5 October

In 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi-led government imposed an economic blockade against Nepal because of a dispute over transit treaties and its uneasiness over Nepal’s growing closeness with China.

As the Minister of Commerce and Supply, Nar Bahadur Budhathoki was responsible for ensuring the smooth management of supplies. “Coincidentally, the 1989 blockade also took place after an earthquake,” said Budhathoki. Rather than kowtowing to India, the Panchayat government led by Marich Man Shrestha prepared to bring in fuel from other nations when the transit treaty came close to its expiration. “The government decided to import oil through the private sector. Soon after, India announced an official blockade,” he said.

The government then started planning ways to end the blockade. Firewood was distributed at a subsidised price, and so were electric rice cookers and electricity. The government made sure that black market didn’t thrive. Within 45 days, Nepal drew the international community’s attention to the problem. “We brought in fuel from Bangladesh and planned to bring in more from Tibet,” said Budhathoki.

India refused to send supplies, deciding not to relent to international pressure. It did, however, agree to let fuel to be brought from Singapore but made sure that the process was difficult. Budhathoki himself went to fetch the oil from Calcutta.

The government prepared to import 50 per cent of the fuel from a third country and initiated the establishment of a stock tank in Panchkhal. World Bank and other donor agencies agreed to provide loans at a minimal interest rate.

The plan was to bring in the pipeline till Xigatse in the first phase, Lhasa in second phase and Panchkhal in the third phase. “We kept it a secret so that India wouldn’t get a chance to sabotage the plan. Only the King, Prime Minister and I knew about it,” said Budhathoki. After India discovered Nepal’s plan, it proposed to build a pipeline till Amlekhgunj, but the government rejected the offer.

According to him, Rajiv Gandhi had tried to contact the King but the latter was on a hunting trip. Realising that Nepal wouldn’t give in, Indian leaders including the former Indian Prime Minister came to Nepal and pressed Nepali leaders to overthrow the Panchayat system. Nepalis did overthrow the Panchayat system. “When Krishna Prasad Bhattarai’s government decided that India’s fuel stock was Nepal’s stock, we lost the battle,” said Budhathoki. “If the movement for democracy had been delayed by six months, we would not have been in this situation now,” he added.

Budhathoki added that leaders should not compromise the country’s sovereignty. “Internal matters should be taken care of within the country. If people are not satisfied, India will get a chance to play games again,” he said.