Traders eying festival sales are worried as goods remain stuck at Chinese bordersAlmost 2,000 containers with clothes, shoes and electronic devices worth Rs20 billion have been stranded at two border points with the northern neighbour since January as cargo clearance has been slow due to adherence to Covid-19 safety protocols.
In January, Dhiraj Shrestha, who owns Maha Ambe, an apparel store in the heart of Kathmandu, had ordered clothes from China. The consignment, worth Rs4 million, had summer clothing. It’s already September-end, but his orders have not arrived yet.
“Consignments from China are stranded in Kerung, the border point on the Chinese side. We do not know when we will get them,” said Shrestha, who is also the president of Ranjana Traders Association, a grouping of traders from Ranjana Trade Centre at New Road, Kathmandu.
According to him, most of the goods stuck at Rasuwagadhi-Kerung include clothes which were ordered targeting the Dashain festival season when people splurge on new outfits.
“If we do not receive our goods in two weeks from now, the Dashain business is gone,” he said.
Dashain begins on October 17 and people have already started shopping. Nepal gets most of the garments, footwear and electronic goods from China to meet the festival demand.
“But there are no new arrivals,” said Shrestha.
About a third of the annual consumption in Nepal takes place during Dashain and Tihar festivals, but this year traders’ goods, mostly apparels, are stranded at the Chinese border.
According to Bachhu Poudel, president of the Nepal Trans-Himalayan Border Commerce Association, a grouping of importers, between 1,800 and 2,000 cargo trucks full of imports are at Kerung,
“We have at least Rs20 billion worth of goods stuck,” he said.
The flow of goods through Rasuwagadhi-Kerung and yet another border point, Tatopani, has now become uncertain, traders say.
Nepal had closed the two border points with China on January 29 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
On March 25, the high-level coordination committee for the prevention and control of Covid-19, headed by Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, decided to gradually reopen the two border points to ensure a smooth supply of essential goods, including medicines and medical equipment from the northern neighbour.
The Tatopani border, which had remained closed since the April 2015 earthquake, was opened on April 8 to bring medicines and health equipment from China.
Rasuwagadhi was opened only in the first week of July.
But these border points were open for one-way traffic, and only four cargo trucks or 120 tonnes of goods were allowed to enter Nepal every day to check the spread of the coronavirus as per an agreement reached between Nepali and Chinese authorities.
Certain safety protocols had to be followed to prevent the virus spread.
Chinese cargo drivers would drop the goods at the Nepal border points and once the Chinese drivers and loaders returned, Nepali drivers and loaders would fetch the shipments and take them to their destinations. Nepali drivers and workers who went to collect the goods had to be tested for the virus every day.
The cargo movement from Rasuwagadhi was briefly affected by the monsoon in August. But the Tatopani border point, through which medical equipment and some other goods were being brought in limited quantities, has not been in operation after the Arniko Highway, that joins Kathmandu with China, was damaged by floods on July 9.
“Even though the Rasuwagadhi point was open, only some medical supplies and some infrastructure project equipment were being dispatched by Chinese authorities,” said Punya Bikram Khadka, chief of the Rasuwagadhi Customs Office. “We held a meeting at the end of August with the Chinese side to increase the consignment in view of the Nepali festival season and they were ready to allow unlimited quantity of goods every day.”
Additional workers were hired for the purpose, but the new arrivals and old workers were kept in the same quarantine.
Things, however, did not go according to plan. The landslides were one problem but there was a bigger one.
“One of the Nepali workers tested positive three weeks ago,” said Khadka. “All our plans were affected.”
The Chinese side was given the report when they asked the Nepali side for it.
“Now, the Chinese authorities do not trust us with coronavirus test results and related information,” said Khadka. “They have again started releasing only a limited number of consignments and these include mostly medicines and some project equipment.”
The Chinese side has now asked the Nepali side to install a lab near the border to get Covid-19 results more quickly. Earlier the swabs were sent to Kathmandu and it took several days for results to reach there.
“We have asked the authorities to fix the problem as soon as possible,” said Khadka. “We are awaiting their response.”
Zang Si, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy, told the Post in a text message that due to the monsoon and the spread of the disease, the transit of goods has been disrupted from time to time.
“The Chinese side attaches great importance to Nepal’s concern on improving the capacity of goods transit, and keeps close communication and coordination with the Nepali side [sic],” Zang said. “As far as I know, the Jilong port [Rasuwagadhi-Kerung] has restored one-way transit on September 24.”
This one-way transit Zang refers to is the limited movement of goods through the Rasuwagadhi border.
Meanwhile, in Kathmandu, the traders are waiting and getting increasingly jittery. The way the cargoes have slowed to a crawl, it will take three years to clear the goods, while Dashain is only three weeks away, they say.
“It’s been more than eight months that goods have been stranded,” said Poudel of the Nepal Trans-Himalayan Border Commerce Association. “If they don’t arrive in time for the festive shopping season, it would make no sense.”
Poudel is worried that the authorities could take months to set up a lab at the border point. “But we need our goods within two weeks,” he said.