The forgotten half

Author(s): Sudeshna Thapa

Year of Publication: 2019

Many school-going boys in Payyatola, a remote village in Sayal rural municipality of Doti, cannot wait till they are old enough to travel to India for work. Migrating seasonally to India in search of employment has been the norm for the men in this village for many generations. Many of the migrants in the village sync their migration cycles with agricultural seasons back home where they have to be present for activities like paddy and wheat planting. Others stay in India for at least a year or two at a time, especially if they have little fertile land back home. Owing to the hilly terrain of the region, farming is difficult. The crop yield barely lasts a few months, and buying food on credit from local stores is the only resort. The money remitted from India is the only means of sustenance for most families, hence the seemingly ubiquitous trend of out-migration in the village.

The narrative bears resemblance with the situation in many villages across Doti and other districts, such as Achham and Baitadi, in Nepal’s far west. Migrant workers from this region travel to a range of Indian cities, including Ludhiana, Sikar and Mumbai. Most are employed in low or semi-skilled jobs; they serve, among others, as watchmen or as helpers or cooks in restaurants and private houses.

Owing to geographical proximity, relatively low transportation costs in comparison to other countries, and the ability to leverage connections established by earlier migrants from their communities, India is the most popular destination among many young Nepali labour migrants, particularly from Nepal’s far west. The number of Nepali migrants in India is estimated at 537,517 according to the World Bank’s data on Bilateral Migrant Stocks in 2017. The figure is the highest among all destination countries (followed by 455,905 for Saudi Arabia and 341,000 for Qatar). In addition, the World Bank’s data on Bilateral Remittance Estimates for 2017 provides that while Nepal received $1.021 billion in remittance from India. India received almost thrice as much in remittance from Nepal during the same period, although the number of Indian emigrants in Nepal was significantly lower.

Barring imprecise estimates of the ‘absentee population’ last recorded in the national census of 2011, our government has no reliable data on Nepali labour migrants in India. Having open borders and ‘friendly’ bilateral ties with our giant neighbour seems to have translated, on the part of the government, into not having to pay attention to the staggering magnitude of labour migration between the two countries.

Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act of 2007, the primary piece of legislation governing matters relating to foreign labour migration, is silent on matters concerning the country’s labour relations with India. India-bound workers are exempt from provisions stipulated in the act. In addition, India is not included in the Foreign Employment Promotion Board’s list of countries ‘authorised by the government of Nepal for institutionalised foreign employment’.

Having no reliable data on labour migration between the two countries has also meant that both governments have not made any significant attempts at systematising their labour relations and have generally kept mum about the issue. In  January 2017, the then prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had stated that Nepali migrant workers headed to India would, thenceforth, have to acquire labour permits from their concerned District Administration Offices. He had also stated that India-bound Nepali emigrants would be able to benefit from employment insurance and avail themselves of the Foreign

Employment Welfare Fund. While the then prime minister had stated that procedural legislation concerning the same would be enacted within one month of the announcement, no legislation to that effect has been endorsed yet.

Labour relations between the two countries is an issue both countries seem reluctant to broach. In glaring contrast to the concern accorded to securing the rights of labour migrants in regions such as the Gulf, the need to protect the rights of labour migrants travelling to India and the need to systematise the process has been an issue perpetually sidestepped in public and political discourse.

While institutionalising labour relations with India has its challenges, given the absolute free movement between the two countries and the risk of creating added bureaucratic hurdles for migrants, the advantages could, nonetheless, be manifold. It would reduce migrants’ vulnerability to abuse and exploitation and provide them with added benefits like insurance coverage and enforceable employment contracts which would, in effect, place migrants under the purview of India’s labour laws and strengthen their access to compensation and remediation mechanisms. While many could initially see the work permit system as an encumbrance, if the permits also conferred the same benefits to India-bound workers that workers going elsewhere are entitled to, such as up to Rs1.5 million in compensation upon death, it might become an attractive option over time.

The need for comprehensive research into the sectors Nepali labour migrants in India are employed in and their employment conditions cannot be over emphasised. Furthermore, research into labour market trends and demands in the cities our India-bound labour emigrants are flocking to could help design appropriate skills training for the emigrants and orient them better. Given the many linguistic and cultural parallels between the two countries, such an effort on the part of the government could boost the competitive advantage of our labour migrants in India over those from other countries to a great degree. Efforts at systematising the unabated flow of India-bound labour migrants could also help curb instances of trafficking and of using India as a transit for illegal labour migration to other countries.

Thapa is a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, Social Science Baha.

Published on: 18 March 2019
The Kathmandu Post


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