The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fragility of, not only Nepal’s health sector, but also of the agriculture sector and Nepal government’s aspirations to be an agriculture driven economy. As pandemic affected the economies around the world and experienced temporary shutdown, Nepali migrants working overseas and in India were forced to return to Nepal. This phenomenon resurfaced the discourse on rural out migration and agriculture, and its linkages.
In Nepal, much research and popular opinion assumes that rural male out migration is the main culprit for declining agricultural production and performance in rural areas. After the pandemic, when these previously migrated men started coming back to Nepal, it was optimistically assumed that they would go back to tilling the land that was left fallow in their absence. However, the causal relationship between agriculture and migration is not that straightforward. To understand how rural out migration affects agricultural practices, and other community management systems, we carried out a research project on ‘Revitalizing community management irrigation systems in the context of rural out-migration in Nepal’, funded by FORMAS, the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development. As a part of the ongoing research project by the Swedish University of Agriculture and the SouthAsia Institute of Advanced Studies (SIAS), a household survey was carried out in 376 returnee migrant/migrant households in Doti and Dadelhura in Sudurpaschim province (Far West) to understand motives and motivation of migration and its linkages to agriculture and irrigation. The survey was carried out in early 2021 before the second lock down in Nepal. The findings underscore many complex missing linkages between agriculture and irrigation schemes and rural out migration in Nepal. Most surprisingly, villages with greater male out-migration had more functioning irrigation systems, rather than the expected opposite. According to our extensive field studies, this seems to be linked to the greater involvement in irrigation management of more marginalized groups such as women, youth, and Dalits.
Remittance Necessity and Dependency
Last year a casual remark by Dr. Yubraj Khatiwada, the then Finance Minister made some headlines. While speaking about the dangers of depleting foreign currency reserves due to COVID associated effects, he said that the government will promote foreign migration so that the remittances do not decrease. Remittances from foreign Nepali labour replenish the foreign currency reserve in the national treasury. COVID-19 and its induced effects in the international trade and job market was believed to pose a threat to the amount of remittances Nepal received every year, which is 23.5 percent of the national GDP. Khatiwada’s remarks were contrary to what he (and the government) was saying at the same time- ‘integration of returnee migrants in the agriculture sector for national prosperity’. Khatiwada’s self-contradicting remarks are a small reflection of the national conundrum- what to promote- agriculture or migration?
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (March 2021), in the first quarter of the fiscal year (2020/21) the remittances from Nepali workers abroad increased by 16.5% compared to the same period last year. In the context of present-day Nepal, migration and remittance thus generated is an important part of not only macroeconomics of the country, but it is the only secure source of livelihood for people living in poverty. Most migrants in our research sites migrate to India as migration does not require a visa or work permit, for a monthly income of as minimum as NPR10,000. Despite a meagre income, the respondents of the survey considered remittance/foreign employment as the most secure source of livelihood due to unavailability of jobs and unpredictability of agriculture production in their villages. In such a situation, remittance has played an important role in boosting the economic resilience of not only the remittance recipient households but that of the country. Despite a need for retaining the young population in the country, the Nepal government is working along governments of new destination countries to facilitate safe migration for Nepali migrant workers.
Migration and Agriculture
Male rural out-migration has considerably reduced the availability of agricultural labour in Nepali villages. However, unavailability of men does not have to automatically lead to a reduced agriculture production and incomes. The absence of a family member can be compensated through increased household financial capital which can be leveraged to hire paid help. Our research findings show that the effects of migration in a household, or a community do not strictly depend only on migration histories alone. The broader agriculture policies and the agricultural sector infrastructure (such as the availability of time saving machinery, and government funds to help sustain farmer-managed irrigation facilities) available for support equally determine social and economic outcomes. In our research sites, broken or limited water infrastructure was one of the main constraining factors for the households to carry out agriculture. This suggests that government investments in farmer-managed irrigation systems are needed.
With the implementation of the Irrigation Master Plan (IMP-2019), there are some villages like Titali in Doti that were provided with irrigation facilities leading to improvement in farming conditions and agricultural production. However, in most of the other villages such as Selinge and Mudrad in Dadeldhura, the communities scramble for water flowing through a single stream leading to conflict between communities living upstream and downstream. Even when there is water supply, the competing demand within the household for drinking and household usages, makes subsistence farming a challenge. Large scale commercial farming is out of the question for such communities in the rugged terrain of the Himalayas, but the selling of surplus farming products at local markets would considerably help to sustain livelihoods. To add to the woe, with the Nepali state restructuring in 2017, the previous district agriculture development offices have been transformed into Agriculture Knowledge Centres, which lack both technical human resource and financial resources to provide support to the farmers.
The agricultural sector engages 69% of Nepal’s labor force (CIA Worldfact Book 2017). Despite the continuous decline of the contribution of the agriculture sector to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of currently around 27%, the agriculture sector has been a priority for the government in the current fiscal year (2021/22) as well with NRP 45.09 billion allocated for the sector. A huge part of the budget (roughly one fourth) is used up importing chemical fertilizers. The use of the remainder of the budget gravitates around plans and programs focusing on commercialization of agriculture. The focus lies in land consolidation and pooling to promote block farming (which is also the working approach of the Prime Minister Agriculture Modernization Project), and agriculture modernization. Such plans, although aimed at improving the domestic agriculture production, do not adequately address the new situation created by rural male out migration, as well as the improvement of farmer-managed irrigation systems for subsistence farming and small-scale commercial selling. More than half of Nepal’s land is irrigated, and 70% of the irrigated land is managed by self-organized farmers (in total: 17,000 irrigation systems), accounting for 40% of the national food production (Pradhan 2000). These require attention to ensure food security and sustainable rural development.
The agriculture sector in Nepal employs 82% of the female workforce. The ‘Feminization of Agriculture’, or, as some academicians working on gender and agriculture in Nepal put it, the ‘Feminization of Agricultural Burden’ is a reality where it is women who do most of the activities between pre-cropping and post-harvesting period. Despite their increased role and decision making in cropping choices in the absence of male family members, it is still male members of the family who predominantly make decisions regarding land and the use of technology in agriculture. By focusing on the later, the plans and policies hence fail to target and encourage the population group (women) that is available in the country to increase agriculture production. It is important to acknowledge the Nepali reality that rural male out migration does not necessarily lead to a decrease in agriculture production. Agricultural production is often steered by women who fill in the gaps of their missing male family members who have decided to discontinue farming. And hence, agriculture plans, programs and subsidies should focus on the needs of women. The land focused approach of the present programs may be disadvantageous to women as previous research shows that they have limited access to land ownership papers and hence land related decision-making. Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS) has set out an ambitious goal of increasing the land ownership of women from 10% (in 2010) to 50% by 2035, however, there is no action plan to reach the goal.
The other way in which the present agriculture plans, and practices miss out on the migration dividend is the missing linkages between remittance and agriculture productivity. Our research shows that the bulk of remittance money goes to everyday consumption and loan repayment rather than investments in agriculture, although there are exceptions. The national plans and policies have yet to think of strategies to encourage remittance investment in the agriculture sector. The recent pandemic and influx of returnee migrants underscored the pitfalls of the agriculture policies which have high aims in increasing production but no action plans on how to systematically accommodate and sustain agriculture sector labour/entrepreneurs within the sector. Various research focused on the situation and future aspirations of the returnee migrants (e.g. by International Organization of Migration, Dan Church Aid) highlighted their skills and interest in the agriculture sector. Patch work of support offered by various tiers of the government (like agriculture subsidy by Sudurpaschim Province government, PM Employment Program) to encourage returnee migrants into the agriculture sector was, firstly, inadequate. Secondly, such ad-hoc programs do not address the systemic problems in agriculture such as insufficient irrigation infrastructure, particularly now with the effects of climate change. The returnee migrant phenomena during COVID-19 lockdown underscored that lack of labour due to migration was not the main issue of agricultural sector underperformance in Nepal. The migrants who had returned back to Nepal, by early 2021 when the global market gradually started to open-up, were already making plans to re-emigrate, as our research shows.
What lies ahead?
In present day Nepal, it is no denying that migration and remittance thus generated is equally important to the lives and livelihoods of the migrant families, and the national economy. On the other hand, while agriculture alone may not be the panacea for the country’s economic challenges, with the right policies to support the people it can be the answer for chronic food insecurity problems. Both migration (remittance) and the agriculture sector are hence equally important in the national context. Therefore, it is important to go beyond the dominant discourse that puts blame on the agriculture sector’s underperformance to rural male out-migration. Agriculture policies and programs should be able to visualize the women population as the key actors in the agriculture sector, and design action plans and targeted programs with an intent to maximize their capacities. Equally important is to identify strategies to effectively amplify the impacts of remittance within the agriculture sector.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of New Spotlight.