A great coming storm

From The Kathmandu Post (19 December, 2014)

Complex social conflicts loom, unless Nepal creates jobs for returning migrants from India and overseas

Ever greater numbers of Nepali citizens are going overseas for jobs at the lower levels of the labour chain. Citizens are driven out by a lack of cash and job opportunities at home, and today, they are found in every corner of the globe. The very poorest of the hill and plain enter India.

The latest overseas labour data from the Department of Foreign Employment, as reported by the web portal Setopati, is that about 1,500 citizens are leaving the country daily by air for employment. The number of those who have departed in this fashion over the last two decades comes to 3.45 million.

The Department’s data on migrants who leave via Tribhuvan International Airport does not, of course, document those who cross the open border to work in India. There is no saying the number of Nepali citizens working in India, but it would be at least three million, a figure which does not count Indian citizens of Nepal origin.

Overall, statistics and conjecture together point to at least six million souls out of the national population of 29 million outside the country—nearly a fifth of the citizenry. The majority would be males of working age, while young-adult women too have started heading out.

The social costs of families living apart, single-parent homes, additional burden on women, the challenges faced by the elderly and children have all been subjects of discussion. Additionally we are seeing the move from village to town, the emptying of hill and mountain homesteads, and trails and terraces going back to jungle after millennia of usage.

The flow-back

The greatest criticism of those who have been at the helm of national affairs since the arrival of democracy in 1990, including those who foisted the devastating decade-long ‘people’s war’ against the people, is that they have neglected employment generation. In all, we have wasted a quarter century, a time when Nepal could have finally begun to deliver employment and livelihoods to its people after an entire history full of exploitation, by the state, family oligarchies, and Kathmandu-based regimes. Failed by the state, the people have chosen the only path they have known for two centuries, which is to make the move to mughlan.

Over six years, we have agonised over the writing of the constitution while neglecting economic growth and job-creation. We have squandered time even as the flow-back of migrant labour seems imminent. The tragedy of wasted time and destroyed lives is all the more poignant because Nepal can reach high, because our geography, placement, and demography make it possible to create jobs rapidly. But even today, we are foundering as leaders without knowledge of economics and uncaring of livelihoods obstruct the path to normalisation of society through successful constitution-writing. Somehow, we must get over this hurdle and energise the economy.

Outside India, the largest intake of Nepali labour is from Malaysia and the Gulf. If the natural cycle of a job migrant’s departure-to-final-return is about a decade, then the surge of returnees is about to begin. If today, it is mostly 1,500 persons leaving the homeland on the airlines Qatar, FlyDubai, Etihad, Air Asia, Malaysian, or Air Arabia, before long it will be the same number returning permanently on a daily basis. The returnees will come back with skills, exposure, and expectations, and will demand gainful employment as a right.

There are other imponderables that may lead to an unexpected surge of returnees. A labour-receiving country could suddenly close its doors, or evict migrant labour—as happened when Malaysia banned Bangladeshi job-seekers between 2007 and 2012 and cancelled thousands of visas. Increasing attention of activists and job action by workers demanding better salaries and living conditions could also lead to a backlash ban. As the Gulf states’ Kafala system of bonded labour is challenged, the demand for Nepali underclass labour may suddenly decline. It pays to be alert and to make arrangements.

Bona fide Nepali

Mainly because of the cash-rich ‘manpower agencies’, the overwhelming focus of the migration discourse has been the overseas destinations. There has been little focus on migrants to India, which has always been regarded as a sump for Nepal’s poorest, whether picking apples in Himachal, carrying loads in Uttarakhand, doing farm labour in Punjab, or digging for coal in Meghalaya.

There are now signs that this historically easy and untrammelled access to low-end jobs south of the border may be in some jeopardy. Researchers have found recently that Nepali nationals working in Mumbai and Bengaluru are no longer identifying themselves as citizens of Nepal, preferring instead to point to origin in Darjeeling or the Indian Northeast. What is it that these migrants have detected, requiring this level of self-protection?

Some answers are provided by a detailed and sensitive report by Devendra Bhattarai in this newspaper’s sister publication, Kantipur, in its December 6 issue. Reporting on conditions in Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh, and New Delhi, the reporter has striven to understand why Nepali citizens in India (as opposed to Indian citizens of Nepali origin) are suddenly feeling vulnerable, despite the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with its ‘equal treatment’ proviso.

As it turns out, much of the vulnerability has to do with the new push for ‘bona fide identification’ for access to services in India, ID that includes the new ‘Aadhaar’ card, ration cards or identification provided by state governments. Nepali citizens, ineligible for such cards, lose out in terms of jobs, contracts, housing, and services, including subsidised ration shops, kerosene, and cooking gas.

In Himachal, the state administration has not acted on court orders that Nepalis be issued temporary ID cards, reports Bhattarai. He found that in Assam and Meghalaya, Nepali nationals are caught in a dragnet meant to check Bangladeshi migrants and insurgents.

The difficult jobs that used to fall to the Nepalis, too, are becoming scarce, such as tunnelling the informal coal mines of Meghalaya (closed by order of the National Green Tribunal). In Himachal, where Nepali nationals work as apple pickers, road construction labourers, and chowkidars, Bhattarai reports that the state authorities are suddenly putting conditions even on the education of children.

In the absence of any attempt by the Kathmandu government to engage New Delhi on the increased livelihood insecurity of Nepali citizens in India, something guaranteed by treaty, the migrants are left to their own devices. One stratagem is to keep dual ID cards—to counter which, New Delhi has apparently issued directives to the Seema Suraksha Bal, the Intelligence Bureau, and other agencies.

The response

Whichever way one looks at it, there will be more rather than less job migrants returning to the home country in the days ahead, from India as well as overseas. They will return as part of the ‘natural’ cycle, or through closure of opportunities elsewhere. As things stand, they will not be coming because the home country has jobs and dignity on offer.

What kind of expectations will the returning citizens have, and what will be their reaction upon realising that their own country, mired in the chaos resulting from political opportunism, has little to offer? This is the all-important matter that should be exercising government, Parliament, and the intelligentsia today. Nepal needs to set its house in order so that employment is generated in a volume that can accommodate returnees—and keeps future generations from leaving in the first place.

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