Fuel smuggling has become the most lucrative business in Birgunj these days. As Madhesi protesters refuse to lift the over two-month long blockade at the Birgunj-Ruxaul entry point with India, petrol is the favourite commodity being clandestinely smuggled in across the border and sold for a tidy profit.
Boys selling one litre capacity plastic bottles of an orangish-coloured liquid along the roadside in Birgunj is a common sight. A litre of smuggled petrol goes for around Nepali Rs.180; and if you’re good at haggling, you could get it for Rs.160.
The Madhesi protesters have blockaded the Birgunj entry point, the main entry point from Patna and Kolkata through which 70 per cent of the freight traffic from India passes to Nepal. The Madhesis, who have close familial links with the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and live in the Terai region bordering India, are demanding changes in the new constitution, which they say deprives them of equal rights and opportunities.
India and Nepal have 21 notified entry points, of which 20 are open, and the Birgunj-Ruxaul point is blockaded by Madhesi protesters.
Motorcyclists, cyclists, scooterists, horse-driven carts, and battery-operated small four-seat vehicles and pedestrians are allowed to pass to and fro at the Maitri Bridge (Friendship Bridge) at the Birgunj-Ruxaul crossing. A posse of Nepal Armed Police personnel at the Nepal side check the sacks and other goods that people carry into Nepal. But the smugglers have learnt to bypass the checking.
“Many people fill up their motorcycle fuel tanks at Ruxaul, and cross over to Birgunj and sell the petrol in black. They make two or three trips a day, and nobody can stop them. Many others smuggle petrol in jerry cans and cart gas cylinders through the field roads from India,” a source told thestatesman.com declining to be named.
In Birgunj and Kathmandu, long queues for petrol and cooking gas were visible. But the queues are for the government-approved rates – of petrol at around Nepali Rs.130, and cooking gas at Rs.1,400 a cylinder. The asking rate for a smuggled cylinder of cooking gas can go up to Rs.5,000, the sources said.
Half-filled cylinders of cooking gas are also available.
“Earlier, money changers were doing roaring business at the border entry points, now they have switched to smuggling petrol,” the source added.
Rekha Sahu, a leader of the Mahila (women) faction of the Terai Madhes Loktantric Party who is among those sitting on protest at the No Man&’s Land border point, says that due to shortage of cooking gas the people are using firewood.
The protesters have stopped the entry of freight traffic, including fuel trucks, from India in order to “force the rulers in Kathmandu sit up and listen to them”.
India has been sending fuel and essentials from the other entry points, which are far off, and also airlifting fuel to Nepal.
In Kathmandu, this correspondent saw buses, cars, SUVs, motorcycles plying on the streets, with even traffic jams taking place at crowded crossings – but the residents agree that the easy availability of fuel earlier is not there.
The blockade has led to a marked spurt in smuggling, leading to a 13-member patrol party of India&’s Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) chasing some smugglers across the border in Jhapa district of Nepal, only to be detained last week. The Indian security personnel were let off.
However, with rampant smuggling there are chances of such incidents getting repeated.
“It is happening because smuggling is taking place on the border, and our soldiers went to stop the smuggling and the people escaped to the Nepal side,” Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae said,
"It has happened once or twice, and we can’t say that it will end, as it is a live situation,” the envoy said, adding that security personnel from both sides need to sit down and coordinate.