Spat with India may hurt Nepali workers

No one knows for sure how many Nepali workers are in India at any given time, but an estimated 600,000 came back because of the COVID-19 crisis. Photos: SURENDRA PHUYAL

As relations between India and Nepal sour, and made worse by Prime Minister K P Oli’s remark about Ayodhya this week, there are fears about how this will affect millions of Nepali workers in India.

Nepalis in India, many of whom were already being taunted after the Lipu Lekh row flared up in May, say that the latest remarks by Nepal’s leader could enrage Indian employers of Nepali migrant workers.

“The leaders in Kathmandu don’t have anything to lose, they can say whatever they like. But Nepali workers here like us may face more harassment and abuses in future,” says Balkrishna Pandey who chairs the Nepali Congress-aligned Nepali Janasamparka Samiti and Maiti India.

In Nepal’s mainstream discourse, reference to ‘migrant workers’ usually means only those overseas in the Gulf, Malaysia or Korea and ignores the estimated 3 million Nepalis working in India.  

KP Oli rams it home, Editorial

Now, Nepal’s Supreme Court has issued a show cause notice to the government as to why Nepali migrant workers in India should not be offered the same facilities and protection as Nepali workers in other countries, including those returning from overseas after the COVID-19 crisis.  

The Nepal government has allowed its citizens to live and work in 170 countries and has bilateral labour agreements with some of them. It has set up the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund to compensate those injured or killed abroad. It also issues foreign employment permits to workers, who can buy insurance worth Rs1.5 million. After many Nepalis lost their jobs due to the pandemic, the government helped get them back by organising repatriation flights.

But Nepali workers in India were given no such facilities. Many had to hitchhike back, stopped from entering Nepal for weeks in April-May, and when allowed in, were forced to languish in poorly organised quarantine sites.  

Advocate Nirmal Upreti, one of the lawyers who lodged the writ petition at the Supreme Court, fears Nepali migrant workers in India could face further stigma and discrimination after Prime Minister Oli’s remarks. He says: “Such political statements could hurt people’s sentiments in India and that could have a bearing on Nepali workers.” 

Upreti says the Nepal government’s attitude towards Nepali migrant workers toiling in India without adequate social security is a clear violation of the country’s Foreign Employment Law, and goes against their right for safe migration.  

“India is a foreign destination just like other countries for Nepali migrant workers,” he says. “But without any legal document or proof of foreign employment, Nepalis working in India continue to be deprived of compensation, insurance and other facilities that Nepalis going to other countries benefit from.”

The India connection in Nepal’s COVID-19 status, Nepali Times

Estimates of Nepali workers in India vary from 2.5-5 million, and most are from western Nepal or the Tarai. They send back much-needed money home to their families, mainly through informal channels.

Last year, Nepalis abroad sent home nearly $8.8 billion through official channels. It is unclear how much of that came to Nepal through unofficial ‘hundi’ route, or what proportion of that was from India.

Three years ago, the World Bank estimated that Nepalis working in India sent home $1.3 billion, while Indians working in Nepal remitted $1.5 billion, making Nepal the country with the seventh highest remittance for India.  

International Organization of Migration (IOM)’s 2019 report estimates that there are between 3-4 million Nepalis live and working in India at any given time. There are said to be up to 700,000 Indian workers in Nepal.  

Migration researcher Ganesh Gurung says that India-Nepal border is open and the movement of workers between the two countries is free, which makes it difficult to find exact numbers.

One-way ticket home for overseas Nepali workers, Upasana Khadka

“We have a lot of seasonal migrant workers crossing the Indo-Nepal border,” he explains, “many Nepalis from the Tarai go to Haryana and Punjab during harvest seasons, and a lot of Indian workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh come to Nepal, too.”

Whatever the numbers, most Nepali workers in India and Indians in Nepal are unregistered and unprotected, working in the unorganised sector, often under unsafe working conditions, they remain vulnerable to injuries, abuses and exploitation.

The Nepali Jana-Samparka Samiti and Maiti India provide support to vulnerable Nepali men, women and children across India. Its chair Balkrishna Pandey migrated to India when he was 17, and has first-hand experience of the hardships.

“For the past 30 years we have been raising the issue of poor migrant workers from Nepal needing some kind of registration, protection and safety net in India,” he told us over the phone. “Many Prime Ministers have come and gone in Kathmandu. When they came to India, the leaders assure migrant workers, but once they get to power in Kathmandu, they forget about the Nepalis here.”

Pandey estimates that in the past four months of the lockdown, some 600,000 Nepali migrants have come back from India, facing hardships all the way.  

Walking 3 days to get home, Sanjay Mishra

Suman Ghimire at Nepal’s Ministry of Labor Employment and Social Security says ensuring safe migration to Nepali migrant workers in India is on the government’s radar, and after the lockdown local governments have started registering the arrivals from India in the past months.  

“This data collection is an important first step in protecting Nepali migrant workers in India,” he says, “we need to do much more and we are serious about that.”

After Narendra Modi came to power in India in 2014, the two governments have made attempts to streamline labour movement in both directions. It was also discussed in the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which was formed in 2016 to review past bilateral treaties including the India-Nepal Peace and Freindship Treaty of 1950.

After many meetings, the EPG completed its final report two years ago, but it has yet to be accepted by the two governments. Experts say the EPG report could provide the necessary foundation to better regulate and protect migration of workers between the two countries.

Ganesh Gurung welcomes the Supreme Court order, and adds: “It’s the poorest of the poor who have been crossing the Indo-Nepal border for seasonal work or employment. They are often at risk. They must be better protected.”

However a diplomat at the Nepal Embassy in New Delhi says the two governments must be cautious about regulating the border. The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “If we start issuing foreign employment permits to our workers who have been freely crossing the border for centuries, Indo-Nepal ties would be affected.”

Read also: 

The India-Nepal-China geopolitical tri-junction, Kunda Dixit

India and China sacrifice Nepal, From the Nepali Press

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