food / travel

"One Mistake, Game Over" - Driving Nepal's Highway To Hell

The Arniko Highway - Yes, "highway"...
The Arniko Highway - Yes, "highway"...
Benoit Hopquin

KHADICHAUR - Araniko Highway, connecting Kathmandu to the Nepal-China border, doesn't look much like a highway. It is narrow strip of roadway sometimes covered in asphalt, sometimes just dirt.

This 115-kilometer road, winding between mountains and ravines is also deadly. Or it would be, without the incredible dexterity of the truck and bus drivers who manage to cross or overtake each other without plunging to their death. Their hands on huge steering wheels that shake every time they shift gears, the drivers take their multicolored rusted Tata trucks up and down the slopes of the Himalaya, where the roads offer, at every turn, breathtaking sights.

On the road to Kodari - Photo: Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

“One mistake, game over” reads a bumper sticker on an old, worn truck. You couldn’t put it better. Here, to make it alive, you have to use your horn – as you would a foghorn – to forewarn cars, motorcyclists, chickens, goatherds, or suicidal pedestrians – like these two men who are rolling oil drums in the middle of the road, or these three men who are pushing a tree trunk to the other side of the highway. It’s one of those roads that you find in every poor country, a heroic feat that covers your face in dust, sweat and diesel oil.

In Khadichaur, no one complains about the non-stop traffic brushing by the street vendors. This town, sitting along the greyish green waters of the Sunkoshi River has a new nickname – China Town. Here, you can find everything China produces cheaply: telephones, knickknacks, kitchenware, clothes, lamps, shoes, TVs, stuffed animals, stereos, irons, toys etc.

Bhairac Chhetri sells blankets, which are all “made in China.” “Business is good but there is more and more competition,” he says. “Five years ago there were only about 20 shopkeepers here, now there are almost 100.” Other bazar-towns are developing along the Araniko Highway, like Barahbise or Dolaghat. Competition is becoming harder.

Bhairav regularly goes to China to replenish his stock of blankets. He takes the bus or rides a pick-up truck to Kodari, on the China-Nepal border, 35 kilometers down the road. Like everyone else, he gets off at the last stop before the border and walks a few kilometers to the narrow Friendship Bridge on the Bhote Koshi River, where he crosses to the other side, to the city of Zhangmu, in Tibet.

The Friendship Bridge on the Bhote Koshi River - Photo: Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

Take the Friendship Highway to China

He buys from Chinese wholesalers, merchants from the Han ethnic group who came to Tibet after it was annexed by China in 1950, to make money. “We bargain in Nepalese,” says Bhairav. “The Chinese are smart, they learned the language.” He then rents out some Nepalese carriers for less than two euros, to carry his purchases from Zhangmu to Kodari on their back. After the 15% customs fee is paid, he travels back to Khadichaur with his new blankets.

Bhairav doesn’t go any further than Zhangmu. He’s never taken the 5,500 kilometer long Friendship Highway that goes to Lhassa, and then all the way to Shanghai. This is the road that the merchandise he buys has taken, and it is the same artery used by the Chinese to penetrate and extend their influence in Tibet.

The city is called Zhangmu in Chinese, Zham in Tibetan and Khasa in Nepalese. Like any good businessman, Bhairav doesn’t get into politics and won’t speak about the Tibetan situation. His position on the civil war that raged for a decade from 1996 to 2006 between the Nepalese monarchy and the Maoist rebellion, resulting in 16,000 deaths and disappeared, is neutral. During those years he paid toll fees to both camps. “The road always stayed open,” he says.

These days, merchandise is sold in Kathmandu and all around Nepal. Sometimes, the trucks go even further, to deliver their Chinese knickknacks to India. The Araniko Highway, which is often blocked by landslides during monsoon rains, and has become an unlikely artery of globalization – with $200 million worth of merchandise being transported on the road every year.

The Araniko (named after a Nepalese architect from the 13th century who worked and died in China) is emblematic of China’s patient and methodical efforts to strategically expand their territory. The road was paid for with Chinese money in the 1960s, to replace a narrow passage that was 2,500 meters high and that could only be crossed on yaks. It will soon be expanded by China, and the modest little Friendship Bridge will be augmented by a second 112-meter long infrastructure that will allow trucks to cross the border into Nepal.

Beijing has also made it easier for the Nepalese to come and go across the border. Those who live near the border can cross into China without a visa, like Bhairav. And China has just exempted 7,787 Nepalese-made products from custom fees. Facilitating the sale of Nepalese agricultural and artisanal goods is not much compared to the massive invasion by Chinese manufactured goods. Nepal imports ten times more from its neighbor than it exports.

Cracking down on “anti-Chinese activities”

Kodari is the only legal entry point on the 1,400-kilometer China-Nepal border, but other crossings are going to be opened – or rather, carved into the Himalaya. China is also planning to build an airport in the historic Nepalese city of Pokhara in order to ease the flow of Chinese tourists and merchandise into the country.

Transports, hydroelectric plants and telecoms – China is investing billions in Nepal – one of the world’s poorest nations – until now an Indian satellite. Former Chinese ambassador Yang Houlan couldn’t be clearer on his country’s intentions in an interview for Nepalese daily newspaper Republica when he said: “From the economical point of view, Nepal is a gateway linking China to South Asia.” Meaning a bridge toward India and its gigantic market.

The two superpowers are not in good terms and their long, contested border is closed and militarized. Yet trade between the two foes is booming. It reached $60 billion in 2010, China being the obvious winner. Beijing also invested in the port of Calcutta, and now, it’s creating itself a ground route through the Himalaya.

“Nepal will be the friendship bridge between China and India,” said former Nepalese Prime minister Baburam Bhattarai. New Delhi on the other hand, sees a Trojan horse filled with Chinese manufactured goods. India has signed free-trade agreements with its little neighbor and historical ally, but it is worried of losing Nepal to Chinese influence.

In exchange for its generosity, Beijing has asked Nepal to recognize Tibet as a Chinese territory and to crack down on anti-Chinese activism. The Nepalese government has understood where its interests lay and has pledged allegiance to China. The joint statement it put out during the former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s last visit in Kathmandu was explicit: “Nepal will do everything to stop anti-Chinese activities on its territory, and recognizes Tibet and Taiwan as an inalienable part of the territory ruled by Beijing. For this, no-one will be allowed to use Nepal territory to harm Chinese interests.”

For some time now, the activism of the 20,000 Tibetan exiles living in Nepal has been largely shackled. On March 10, the demonstration planned to mark the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising was banned. All “anti-Chinese activity” is being sanctioned, even though there is no clear legislation to support the crackdown.

Nepal has traded part of its freedom for economic development. China applies the same policy with Kazakhstan, where it represses the ethnic Uyghur community, which is Muslim. Beijing invests massively in this country, in exchange for the surveillance and crackdown on opponents. But in Khadichaur, and along the Araniko Highway, it’s highly unlikely that Bhairav and his friends understand this geopolitical game.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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