Inconvenient truths

Instead of making things easy for its citizens, the Nepali state excels at putting up obstacles every step of the way


On 13 July, 117 young Nepalis all with valid documents to work in Kuwait were turned back at Kathmandu airport immigration. Nearly half of them were women, and they had already been issued boarding passes.

Their labour permits from one department of government were not accepted by another.

A few days earlier, 156 workers flying to Kuwait and Jordan were similarly stopped by airport immigration. In both instances, other passengers with exactly the same documents were allowed to board flights while they were not.

Read also: Two decades of debate on female migration, Upasana Khadka

These are not one-off cases: kickbacks and payoffs have become such a part of life in this country that the English word ‘setting’ has entered the Nepali lexicon to describe collusion between unscrupulous businesses, bureaucrats and politicians. 

It is when someone somewhere has not been paid off by a recruiting agency that Nepali migrant workers are stopped at the airport, and it only makes it to the headlines if hundreds are involved. Individual inconveniences for legitimate travellers that happen every day never make it to the news.

A record 800,000 Nepalis left the country to work abroad in fiscal year 2022-23 that ended on Monday. And that was just the total for those that obtained mandatory labour permits from the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE), and did not include those who went to India, or left on student visas for Australia, Canada or Japan.

Nepal is still a functioning economy because of the money those Nepalis send home. Remittances through official channels grew 27% this fiscal year to hit $8.6 billion, although a similar amount probably also came through informal transfers. 

Nearly one-third of Nepal’s GDP equivalence is made up of remittances. Yet, the poorest and most desperate Nepalis are harassed every step of the way in their own country before they get to their destination, where they are exploited some more.

Nepal now has a different breed of migration: youth leaving for higher studies in Canada, Australia, Japan, the United States and the UK but many of these are essentially emigrants out to also work and earn money.

Push factors are many, but one of them is the poor quality of higher education. And there are not enough jobs for graduates. But the government also makes it as difficult as possible for them to leave.

Most Nepali students paying their way into foreign universities need a No Objection Certificate (NOC) before flying out. There are long queues at the department issuing these documents, many applicants are rejected simply because the university they are applying for does not exist on the NOC list. But there is always a way: ‘brokers’ will fix the papers for a fee, and everyone gets their cut.

Once they come back (if they ever return) the students have another mammoth hurdle to cross: obtaining an equivalency certificate from Tribhuvan University’s ambitiously named Centre for Curriculum Development for their degrees so they can find jobs in Nepal. Most get the go-around for years, eventually give up and emigrate for good.

Astha Dahal, a Kathmandu-based lawyer with a PhD in criminology from the University of Cambridge who also writes the monthly column for this paper on the judiciary, was refused equivalency by Tribhuvan University on flimsy grounds.

The Nepali state makes it difficult, and often impossible, for an honest citizen to access services like getting a citizenship certificate, national ID, passport, PAN number, driving license. It is as if politicians and bureaucrats are not there to serve, but to rule. 

These plutocrats actively discourage people from obtaining any official document or paper, unless there is cash under the table. This is the true hallmark of an apathetic state devoid of accountability. Impunity for crimes committed by the highest in the land means that corruption trickles down the state machinery.

Those seeking services are scolded rudely, herded like goats, humiliated, and treated as if they are asking for a favour. A citizenship bill is passed, but single mothers are still treated as if they are invisible, and if they are from an excluded caste or ethnic group without connections, it is even more difficult. 

The Supreme Court orders registration of same-sex marriage, but gay couples cannot register their marriage because bureaucrats see a problem with the wording of the law.

Despite federalism, or maybe because of it, the rot has seeped down to local governments. A charity running a hospital in a remote part of Nepal serving the poorest of the poor cannot get its budget approved on time because of bureaucratic obstacles every step of the way and ‘civil’ servants asking for their cut.

Our kleptocracy makes rules just to make things difficult for those seeking services, and leaves an opening for middlemen who are on their payroll and can facilitate the process for a fee. Paperwork is made needlessly difficult, they have to be rubber stamped in a labyrinth of rooms.

Even paying taxes has been made difficult, and collectors will not take your money unless you pay them. Citizens have to pay a bribe to deposit their taxes — no wonder the government has a revenue shortfall.

It is difficult to find a formula to get out of this rut. Our only hope is in the new crop of elected representatives in Parliament who want to clean things up. The Lalita Niwas and fake refugee scandals also offer hope that check and balances in Nepal’s democracy are functioning. 

But the priority should be an immediate and effective change in the way government functions in this country. Government of Nepal: ask not what your citizens can do for you, but what you can do for your citizens.

Sonia Awale