MIGRATION: Not Yet A Choice

For many Nepalese, as employment opportunity is shrinking at home and subsistence agriculture is not enough to feed the family, migration for work is not a choice but a compulsion. Had there been other opportunities, migration for work would be nobod

Dec. 26, 2014, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol: 08 No. -13 December. 26- 2014 (Poush 11, 2071)

Jaya Bahadur Rokaya, 35, a resident of Rara Village Development Committee of Mugu district, works for six months in the Indian State of Uttarakhanda carrying goods. When he returns home, he brings back Rs. 30,000.00 annually to feed his family of six.

“As our land production is not enough to feed our family, which is barely enough for more than five months, we have to go to India to make some money to supply the foodstuff for the remaining months of the year. The weather is getting unpredictable these days. Sometimes, we have lost all our crops. So, I have no option but to go to India for money.”

In the last few years, people like Rokaya, faced with the extreme weather conditions and drastic reduction of their agriculture products, are surviving on the earning made in India.

“Last year, heavy rains destroyed crops and hailstorms destroyed the harvest. The village will be empty after December as most of the young have to go to India to make money to buy food grains, ” CPN-UML leader Chandra Bahadur Shahi said. 

Ram Chandra Thakur, 24, a resident of Matihani of Mahottari district is on the way to capital of Saudi Arabia for job.  Thakur, a higher secondary student, leaving his 2-year old daughter back home, is going for foreign employment when he did not find a job back home.

“This is not my choice but a compulsion. As our agriculture farm is not sufficient to feed our family, I have to look for avenues to earn bread,” said Thakur while he was just leaving the Tribhuvan International Airport on December 6.

The Labor Desk at Tribhuvan International Airport reported that every day almost 1500 Nepalese are leaving abroad for jobs. However, there is no record of how many Nepalese cross the Nepal-India border.

As Nepal has been passing through a course of prolonged political instability, the industries are shutting down and new investors are yet to invest in large number of industries due to power cut and other labor related problems. In that context, the Nepalese are likely to rely on foreign employment for a long time to come.

Nepal's industrial production continues to decline and its export is shrinking. With the money it has, importing Petroleum products for a quarter has been tough. Now, remittances are a major foreign currency earner to maintain Nepal’s Balance of Payment.  

According to Census Report  2011, one in every four households (25.42%) households had reported at least one member being absent or living out of the country. The census found that 1921494(762.181 in 2001 and 328470 in 1961) out of the absent population, and more than 610000 were in India.

The recently published Labor Migration for Employment : A Status Report for Nepal 2013/014 accounts for migrants seeking employment in countries other than India. According to the report, around 2.23 million labor permits were issued between  2008/09 to 2013/014.

Those obtaining permits increased from 219,965  (25% female) in 2008/09 to 521878 ( 15% women) in 2013/014.  Although the social costs of migrant workers are very high, there is no alternative for people like  Rokaya to go to foreign countries for employment other than migration. Nepalese working abroad are estimated to have sent Rs.530 billion in 2013 which is fictionally lower than the government's annual budget. It is estimated that the remittances amounted around 29 percent of GDP in 2013, one of the highest in the world.

“ Nepal’s economy is so much addictive to the remittances that any implications in the labor market are a great threat to Nepal’s economy. From poverty reduction to growing service industry, remittances have played a major role,” said Dr. Shanker Sharma, former vice chairman of National Planning Commission. “ Poverty declined from 41 percent in 1996 to 25 percent in 2011. This is due to the remittances. Remittances have helped capital formation also. They also support Nepal’s foreign exchange reserve. Nepal’s 56 percent of households receive remittances. 

Although the down fall of oil prices does not have immediate threat for foreign employment, the long term threat is ever present. Despite the lurking threat, the government is yet to prepare any contingency program  in case of crisis that affects the remittance senders.

Social Costs

Of course, migration has economic benefits. However, it has high social costs. At a time when discussions are dominated by remittances, it is diverting  attention from the fact that most migrants travel to their destination countries looking for improving their quality of life.

As there is a debate going on about how to make migration safer and productive, National Planning Commission organized a high level consultation on Migration and Development, with labor, agriculture development and climate change perspectives, for integrating labor migration in the sectoral policies.

Participated in by high government officials, representatives of Nepal’s development partners, civil society members and experts, the half day interaction discussed safer migration issue at length.

Organized by National Planning Commission and Kathmandu Migration Group, the half day high level consultation concluded by adopting a Kathmandu Declaration. Minister of State for Labor and Employment Tek Bahadur Gurung inaugurated the session on Migration for Development, Labor, Agriculture Development and Climate Change, Integrating Labor Migration in the sectoral policies.

Although hundreds of people like Rokaya and Thakur are leaving the country taking great risks on their own, given Nepal’s current political instability, there is no one to listen to their voices.

Presenting an expert paper, former vice chairperson of National Planning Commission Dr. Sharma revealed that remittances were a major factor in Nepal’s current economic progress, including poverty reduction. “Any set back on remittances at present juncture would have negative impacts on the national economy."

At the economic cost of migrant workers, the state is virtually ignoring their difficulties and human cost. Addressing the program, Jamie McGoldrick, UN Resident Representative, said that the migrants' contribution  needs to be recognized and their rights should be protected.

Opening the program, Jose Assalino, ILO Country Director, said that this program is important to know the overall state of migration in Nepal.

Rampant Misuse of Migrant Workers

Migrant workers are savior of the country. But, they are also victims of all kinds of misuses and rights violations. Almost every day migrant workers returning from India are looted in border areas. Nepalese migrants working in India cannot make transaction through the banking system.

Migrant workers going for Gulf and other countries are victims of manpower agents and mistreatment at the destination. From the early process of recruiting, they are cheated all the time.

“The ministry is taking the issue of migrant workers seriously. The Ministry of Labor and Employment is bringing a national policy and amending the act to make foreign employment safe and secure,” said Minister of State for Labor and Employment Tek Bahadur Gurung.

There is no conducive environment for migrants, who returned with certain skills, to use these at home. The government hardly pays any attention to retain the skilled migrant workers who return.

Member of National Planning Commission Dr. Bhartendu Mishra said that the remittances need to bring change in the livelihood at the grass root level. “National Planning Commission will make every effort to make migration safer and respectful.

“If  they bring so much of money to the country, it is the duty of the state to look after them.”

Moderated by Gopi Mainali, joint secretary at the National Planning Commission, secretary of Ministry of Labor and Employment Buddhi Bahadur Khadka said the ministry is working to improve the situation of migrant workers. “Along with data of those leaving, we are working to collect the data of returnees.”

With over 2.5 million of its people abroad, Nepal can make a lot of difference by way of utilization of their skills and money. “Diaspora is an asset for Nepal. They can contribute more than we expect,” said Arjun Kanta Mainali, chief of Protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Due to climate change there is a possibility of bulk migration in the future. “As extreme weather invites more disasters like floods,GLOF, and drought, climate change is likely to be a major factor for migration in the coming days,” said Ram Prasad Lamsal, Ministry of Science and Technology and Environment.

As some migrant workers returning from countries like Israel and South Korea are successfully doing agro-businesses, the government needs to encourage other migrant workers in similar areas.

“Without improvement in the agriculture sector, you cannot retain the people. This is the reason the new agriculture development strategy is focusing more on commercialization of agriculture,” said Dr. Rajendra Adhikari, joint secretary at  Ministry of Agriculture and Development.

Although foreign employment is not a long term solution, there is no immediate way out but to rely on it for remittances. In that sense, Nepal can work to make the whole thing more systematic, transparent and workers friendly so that they can be treated with respect. The message of the half-day policy discussion is clear: migration is needed for development and it should not be for exploitation and rights violation. 

The time has come for Nepal to make migration just a matter of choice. For this, first of all, Nepal needs a stable government and policies.

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