Nepali workers returning to India


Three months after nearly 400,000 Nepali workers returned from India following the Covid-19 lockdown, many are now headed back because they have not been able to find jobs in their home country.

It is estimated that only some of the Nepali workers in India returned to Nepal in May-June after the lockdown, and it is not known if the numbers going back to India now will pick up since Dasain is less than two months away.

Gobinda Malla en route to India

One of those returning to India is Govinda Malla from Nepalganj, who returned from Gujarat three months ago. He had heard about the difficulties at the border and the poor state of the quarantine centres in Nepal, but came home anyway.

“With the joblessness and fear of the virus, we thought it was better to die in our own land near our families than in a foreign country,” Malla said over the phone. 

But it was not long before he and many thousands like him found they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. In Nepal, there were family expenses, but no more earnings and the savings were gone. 

Malla crossed over into India on 7 September after hearing that his friends had made it safely back to their work place. He will try to get a train to Mumbai where he has relatives. He does not have a job confirmed yet, but will stay with them while he looks for one. 

“Everything is uncertain, but likelihood of finding a job is higher there than here, and I am glad I have an Indian Aadhar card as without it, I would not have been allowed back,” says Malla, admitting that he might have to return to Nepal if there are no jobs in Mumbai.

Purna Thakuri returned last week to a eatery that he co-runs in Gujarat, and said on the phone from there that compared to the difficulty of traveling to Nepal from India in May, this time it was smoother. 

"The police in the Nepali side tried to dissuade us, saying it was better to stay in Nepal during this crisis. But we convinced them that our jobs or businesses are at stake,” said Thakuri, who said the Indians took a temperature check at the border but there was no quarantine requirement. “We are in a green zone in Gujarat and business is picking up. What alternatives did I have in Nepal?"

Purna Thakuri returned to run his small restaurant (Khaja Pasal) in Gujarat

Durga Bahadur Khadka from Bardia spent five years working in a restaurant in Maharastra state, and is not sure whether he is going back. He says: “It is not about whether or not I will go, but when. I worked as a cook, made around 15,000 Indian rupees and did not have to spend on food and room.”

The Nepal government does have plans to help returnees find jobs so they can get back on their feet. Labour experts even pushed all three levels of government to urgently give jobs vacated by the 500,000 Indian workers in Nepal to Nepali returnees from India. But the rush of Nepalis returning to India in the past weeks shows that these promises are limited to paper.

In theory, there are reintegration programs, soft loans, and jobs via the Prime Minister’s Employment Program (PMEP). Even before the pandemic, the PMEP was criticised for creating just 13 days of employment for 175,909 returning migrant workers in the past fiscal year. The returnee soft loan program approved credit for less than 1% of 18,000 applicants. This year’s budget had employment generation as a central focus, but implementation has been slow and returnees do not have the luxury to wait around. 

Migrants from India do not even qualify for programs targeting returnees such as the soft loan program because they have not contributed to the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund. In fact, Nepalis migrating to India for work are almost treated like internal migrants. Faced with the choice between hunger and jobs, many of the poorest are heading back across the border. 

Khadka of Bardia knew local officials were collecting information on the jobless for the Prime Minister’s Employment Program, but he did not sign up because he was not sure he would get a job if he did. 

“It would be working on road or irrigation construction projects for just 500 rupees a day,” he says. “The best option for me is to go back to India to the cooking job I had. But I am trying to find out more about the journey back and the situation in Maharastra so I know the risks.”

Hari Sharma from Banke, who shared his experience about his journey back home with Nepali Times in May has decided to try his luck in Nepal despite being asked by his employer in India to return. 

“I spent Rs20,000 to start a small butcher shop from my house, but it is not easy because many customers want to buy meat on credit. But I will see how it goes, some days are better than others,” Sharma said in a phone interview.

If the pandemic in India goes down and things get back to normal, Sharma knows it may make more sense to re-emigrate to India, or even go to the UAE. However, Nepal has not yet fully re-opened issuing labour permits.

Hari Sharma, an India returnee, started a butcher shop in Banke

So far, the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) has said it will issue labour permits only after receiving No Objection Certificates (NOC) from the employer which is verified by the concerned Nepal Embassy. Workers on vacation stranded in Nepal after the suspension of international flights in March can also fly back. 

Over 5,000 Nepalis now in Nepal have renewed their labour approvals, but the entry requirements of destination countries vary. For example, Malaysia has not yet started allowing foreign workers to the country while the Nepal Embassy in Bahrain has published a list of 297 workers who have registered to return to Bahrain from Nepal along with a list of entry requirements.