13 Aug 2018

Petty Petrol Politics: Geopolitics, Reconstruction, and the Everyday Struggle for Fuel in Post-Earthquake Nepal

Paper at the Asian Borderlands Research Network Conference, Bishkek, 13-15 August 2018

Galen Murton


The Himalayan earthquakes of Spring 2015 significantly transformed flows of petroleum and politics across Nepal’s borders with both India and China. In addition to causing nearly 9000 deaths and incalculable losses across public and private spheres, the earthquakes shattered infrastructures, generated massive new humanitarian cash flows, and reconfigured Kathmandu’s relations with Delhi and Beijing. In the post-earthquake period of October 2015, anti-constitution protests in southern Nepal turned violent and soon resulted in blockades and trade embargoes at Nepal’s border crossings with India. Nepal historically imports 100% of its petroleum products from India, and with the borders all but closed to fuel transfers, domestic demands for petroleum products soon escalated into an acute fuel crisis. While the Government of Nepal quickly blamed this crisis on Indian leadership in Delhi, Chinese interventions soon made a highly symbolic but largely nominal act of fuel relief with the delivery of 12 petrol tankers from Tibet in November 2015. During this period, a robust and highly lucrative black market also developed, sustained through collusion between Madhesi activists, the Nepali Police, and unscrupulous members of the Kathmandu establishment. The day to day experience of this fuel crises amounted to a 300-500% inflation in gasoline and diesel prices, a severe limitation of propane and kerosene cooking gas, and the virtual shut-down of all construction industry. As a result of these constraints, much of Nepal was left paralyzed and earthquake reconstruction, road repairs, hydropower development, and other infrastructure programs widely articulated as bikas abruptly came to a stand still. A material example of regional geopolitics grounded into everyday experience, access to fossil fuels – and the contested prices at which they were bought, burned, traded, and hoarded – reflects a key way in which borders can be reconsidered through analysis of the stuff that flows across them.

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