Love thy neighbours

Nepalis studying, working and living in India not part of migration discourse

Photo: SHRIJAN PANDEY

When landslides struck a pilgrimage route to the Kedarnath shrine in the Indian Himalaya last week, 13 of the 19 people killed were Nepalis. All of them were migrant workers from Jumla in western Nepal.

Largely ignored in Nepal’s migration statistics are the estimated 4 million Nepalis who are studying, working and living in India. They are undocumented as Nepalis do not need visas or passports for India, just as Indians do not need those travel documents to travel to Nepal.

Nepal has an 1,808km open border with India to its east, south and west, and recorded migration between the two countries can be traced back to the Treaty of Sugauli between Nepal and The East India Company in 1816 which allowed the recruitment of Gurkha soldiers into the British Army.

But following Indian independence in 1947, while the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkha Rifles became part of the British Army, the rest stayed with the new Indian Army. Even today, there are nearly 42,000 Nepali soldiers in the Indian Army.

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A large portion of Nepalis making their way to Uttar Pradesh and other Indian cities are seasonal workers from historically neglected far western Nepal looking for jobs to augment family expenses.

For people in the remote mountains of Nepal or Tarai towns, India is much closer than faraway Kathmandu. Dehradun is only seven hours by bus from Mahendranagar while Kathmandu can take up to 17 hours.

“I work for 12 hours a day for 12,000 Indian rupees a month,” says a native of Mahendranagar who has been working in a dhawa roadside restaurant in Haridwar for the past 10 years. He initially went to Saudi Arabia but the recruiter robbed him of his salary, and he was forced to come back. When he couldn’t land a job in Nepal, he left for India.

He adds: “Going to India was a more convenient option than coming to Kathmandu. I don't make much but I get to see my wife and son once every few months.”

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Nepalis make it to India via five main transit points: Kakadbhitta-Siliguri, Biratnagar-Jogbani, Bhairahawa-Sunauli, Nepalgunj-Rupediya, and Dhangadhi-Gauriphanta. But there are no exact figures on the total number of Nepalis in India, only rough estimates.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights says that some 350,000 to 400,000 Nepalis were internally displaced from their villages during the Maoist conflict, and many more crossed over to India to escape the violence. Many never returned.

While increasingly many Nepalis are making it big in the IT and management sectors in India, many more are still security guards and domestic workers. As unskilled workers, most earn only a little more than they would in Nepal.

Even so, according to the Nepal Labor Migration Report 2022, Nepal received Rs43.16 billion in remittances from India, just behind the top contributor Qatar. Even that could be a gross undercount since much more money comes in through informal channels.

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There are also Nepalis who have lived in India with their family for years. “My parents came here long ago and are now settled here,” says a 20-year-old Nepali worker in a restaurant in Srinagar. There were many others like him in Dehradun, Mussoorie, and Delhi with their families who first came looking for a job but are now settled in India.

Many lodges and restaurants in Delhi are run by Nepali migrants. “I sold my camera to come to Delhi for work,” says a 21-year-old working in Krishna Rooftop Cafe in Pahadganj. The staff is all Nepali and the whole establishment was buzzing with dohori folk songs.

Labour migration to the Gulf and Malaysia is rife with stories of exploitation and abuse. Things are as bad if not worse in India, with a near absence of safety mechanisms and legislation to protect the workers.

Read also: Nepali nurses gone and going to the UK, Nepali Times

Since Nepalis in India are largely undocumented, most cases go unreported, are un-surveilled and out of social policy. This poses an additional security risk for those involved in unregulated sectors such as sex trade and domestic work.

The National Human Rights Commission in 2019 estimated that 1.5 million Nepalis are vulnerable to human trafficking. The traffickers often target young girls from financially weak families belonging to marginalised communities. The open border between Nepal and India and lack of documentation make it virtually impossible to track these instances of crime.

Growing intolerance of minorities in recent years means Nepalis also sometimes face hostility.

In an era of right-wing nationalism, Nepali migrants can also face the heat. In fact, even Indians of Nepali descent were treated with much scrutiny when the dispute over much-contested Kalapani-Limpiyadhura territories broke out between Nepal and India in 2019.  

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