Border blockade affects universities, research

An unofficial blockade allegedly imposed by Nepal’s Southern neighbour India is threatening to delay research and theses that depend on scientific experiments, while also affecting day to day administration at many institutions.

A majority of academic institutions in the country have been struggling to operate amid a severe fuel shortage as just a few fuel trucks have been allowed to enter from India since Nepal’s new constitution came into force in September.

The blockade, which began in September 2015, has crippled the daily life of around three million Nepalis. Landlocked Nepal had been solely dependent on India for the supply of petroleum, large amounts of medicine, foodstuffs and also educational materials and equipment.

The Madhesi community which has strong ties to neighbouring Indian states has been opposing the new constitution. The latest talks between representatives of the community and the government in Kathmandu broke down on 20 January, leading to renewed unrest on 21 January.

The Indian government has denied involvement in a blockade, claiming the border problems were due to protests and demonstrations by Madhesi groups on the Nepali side of the border.

Higher education institutions were already struggling to resume activities normally after being closed for more than a month in the wake of the devastating April 2015 earthquake and numerous strong aftershocks.

As fully-fledged studies resumed after relocating the colleges wrecked in the disaster, they were hit by the blockade.

Practical classes have been halted because of a lack of chemicals, power-outages and a shortage of fuel to operate generators. Besides chemicals and equipment, all departments at Nepal’s Institute of Science and Technology, or IoST, need a reliable power supply to operate fridges, heating ovens and autoclave machines – used for sterilising equipment – among other things.

Request for supplies

Chirika Shova Tamrakar, dean at IoST, said all the institution’s departments face similar problems.

Tamrakar said she had personally requested the ministry of energy and ministry of supplies to install a separate feeder to the university to ensure uninterrupted supplies of electricity, and of liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, and other petroleum. "Otherwise the entire academic session will be delayed," she said.

More than 5,000 students are enrolled in over a dozen departments, including zoology, botany, biotechnology and environmental science.

The blockade has also hampered administration, she said, with problems printing question papers as there is no power or adequate paper for printing, while daily work in the office has come to a halt due to a lack of power to operate computers.

"We are going through the worst situation. The teaching and learning process cannot be normal when both teachers and students have to struggle to manage their daily life," Tamrakar said.

At Nepal’s Tribhuvan University – one of the world’s largest universities in terms of student enrolment – the central department of microbiology procured a spectrophotometer for day to day practical classes, along with various chemicals, through a bidder in September. The supplier has not been able to deliver as it is waiting for the clearance at the border from the Indian side.

The department says it has extended the deadline for the bidder three times but it is still unsure when the equipment will reach the Kirtipur-based department.

Laboratory problems

According to Anjana Singh, head of the microbiology department, the lack of chemicals and power supply has meant it is not possible to operate the labs. She said many students have been set back several months, unable to conduct their thesis research and experiments because of the lack of supplies.

Normally, the microbiology masters curriculum requires three periods of theory and four periods of practicals a week, but this has not been possible for the past three months. The department has adopted a policy to complete the theory classes and conduct the practicals once materials and equipment are in place.

Suman Maharjan (26) passed his fourth semester examination six months ago and was supposed to complete his masters thesis within two months.

In the second week of September he ordered antibiotics and other chemicals from India for the practical research for his thesis aimed at finding out effects of antibiotics in bacteria. It took more than three months for him to get the supplies but then there was no LPG in the campus laboratory and he had to wait another month for LPG to become available.

"It was like winning a war to manage everything. You cannot imagine how painful it is to lose months waiting to begin the study," Maharjan said, adding dozens of his friends from different departments were facing similar problems.

Nepal complained to the UN about the blockade in November, and meanwhile signed its first agreement with China to import fuel from that country. However, China cannot replace the amounts imported from India – the transport route over the Himalayas is also very long and arduous compared to the routes from India.

A large number of backed up transport vehicles were allowed to cross the border from India in December.