When India announced the first COVID-19 lockdown, people started marching to their homes by any means of transportation, even walking miles. In this manner, hundreds and thousands of Nepali citizens/workers living in India gathered at the India-Nepal borders protesting and sloganeering that “Nepali Nagrik lai firta leyu” – “Nepal, take your citizens back.” But by then, borders had been closed down and only essential services were allowed to pass through, leaving all these workers stuck at the border.
A few days later, Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli stated, with regard to the workers stuck in India, that the “Indian government is providing facilities for 2,186 Nepali workers... even though we offered them hotels to stay, they don’t want to stay there... we know the love for the family is important at this time... the feeling of patriotism/nationalism (Rashtrwad ko bhavna) has become high at this time.”
Going Home During a Pandemic: Not Just ‘Nationalism’ – A Question of Dignity & Respect
With returning home becoming such a universal act in the time of a pandemic, can the homecoming of migrant workers be seen through only the simplistic prism of rashtrwad/ nationalism? It is surely more than that.
As 36-year-old Raju (name changed to protect identity) reflects, it is a question of dignity and respect. He is from somewhere in Nepal (identity/place not disclosed upon his request) protesting at Pithoraghar-Dharchula border along with around five hundred others. “Why would I live alone when everything is closed, I am carrying only three to four hundred cash in my hand; there isn’t any guarantee that construction work will start any time soon? So, it is better to go home and live with the family,” he reasons.
On both sides of the border, the authorities are asking workers to stay put, wherever they are, and assuring them that they will be taken care of.
Raju contends that “first of all, Nepal should open its border for its citizens. Don’t you think it is as though my family has closed its doors just after seeing me at the doorsteps? And then, even though I am a daily wage worker, a poor man, I have never lived like this in a tent and without working (ma ewda mazdur manche cchu, gareeb chu, tar ma yesri kahle pani bacheko thiiyena). Everybody wants to go home because in this time of pandemic (mahamri ko belaa ma), if anything happens to us and to our family... better to live together.”
Nepal’s Economic Disparity
Due to the open border and geographical-cultural similarities, limited investment as compare to other countries, no visa policies and many other push-pull factors, people can be seen working across borders. But now the workers want to go back home, and their act of returning is being reduced to a mere feeling of rashtrwad/nationalism.
People at quarantine centres, under the tents (tripal) at different parts of the border, certainly have different definitions of ‘rashtrwad’ as compared to that of the ruling class of Kathmandu.
This myopic view attempts to overtly simplify, and conveniently reduces migrants to a singular identity. The reason behind it could be the different economic reality and privileges Kathmandu’s elite classes have, which might not match rural Nepal’s reality.
The return of the migrant labourers can be understood in multiple ways but when a major part of a country’s GDP comes from such remittances (16.39 percent in 2018) then perhaps returning is not merely a question of rashtrwad but also of how Nepal as a nation is going to deal with real issues in the days to come.
At Least 908,000 People Are Jobless In Nepal
Economists have indicated the possibility of worldwide recession which is going to impact labour supplying countries (which includes Nepal, which sends more labour migrants abroad per capita than any other country in South Asia). It is the fifth-most remittance-dependent economy in the world (after Tonga, Kyrgyzstan, Haiti, and Tajikistan). This situation will exacerbate the existing economic crisis.
The Central Bureau of Statistics survey 2018-19 has estimated that around 908,000 people are completely jobless in Nepal.
In this data, the workers returning from neighbouring India have not been included. There is also no official data of remittances that come from India, though it has been estimated that 2.5 million Nepali people are in India working in different sectors, living with families, many of them going as seasonal labourers or agricultural workers.
Slow, Inefficient Response of Nepal Govt to COVID Crisis
The misunderstanding and confusion that was seen in the first few weeks of lockdown has not changed much. Lockdown measures have loosened up in India and on the other side of the border, and thousands of workers are entering from multiple points along the India-Nepal border and going to 38-39 different districts of Nepal, according to the district collector of Kailai. Some of them are being given entry without proper testing, which means that community transmission is very likely now.
The response of the Nepal government to the COVID-19 crisis and the reverse migration of poor workers (back to Nepal) is both slow and insufficient.
A number of cases show the deepening of the existing crises, and the poor state of the economy and healthcare system. Recently, a man from the Dalit Madhesi community in Saptari died of hunger, and another 32-year-old man died in a quarantine centre, and a porter died on the footpaths of Kathmandu. And data speaks for itself.
(Kavita Raturi has been engaging with Nepal’s issues since 2010, and has also submitted her PhD thesis on the topic of ‘Nepal’s people’s war and gender’, at JNU. She is currently working as a researcher and freelance writer based in Kathmandu. She can be reached at Emagoldman1869@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)