Workers return to jobless Nepal

Suraj Pariyar returned to his home in Baglung after the hotel where he worked in New Delhi closed down because of the lockdown in India. Photos: Ramu Sapkota

Suraj Pariyar had been working as a cook in a New Delhi hotel prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the hotel closed as a result of the subsequent economic fallout, Pariyar was forced to return to his home in Baglung. Now, with no source of income and a family of seven to feed, Pariyar is desperately seeking any available job.

Suraj is just one of 4,300 workers to have returned from India to this district in the mid-western mountains. He left for India 15 years ago when his father fell ill, his elder brother disappeared and his middle brother died. His family has been living as squatters, working their landlord’s fields to make ends meet.

“I do not want to return to Delhi,” he says. “I might find temporary work around here but I do not know if I will find permanent employment.”

With his father dead and his mother ill, the family’s small farm is fallow, placing greater pressure on Suraj and brother Santosh, 18, to somehow keep the family afloat.

Suraj has learnt driving and agricultural skills in his time in India and hopes to put them to good use. But employers in Nepal are also suffering and there are no jobs. “I have thought about taking a driving job after lockdown, but the vehicles are off the roads.”

Phulmati Pariyar’s sons have returned from India after they lost their jobs. They do not have any income, and she is worried about how to keep the family fed.

As waves of workers return home, pressure has been mounting on local governments to provide them with temporary employment until the pandemic’s economic fallout subsides. Like Suraj, many returnees have come home with valuable skills learnt abroad.

Mayor of Badigad Rural Municipality in Baglung, Mehar Singh Paija attributes the lack of jobs for returnees to the fact that there is no internal revenue generation. “A lack of funds has affected our plans to generate employment based on the returnees’ skills, knowledge and mindset,” he says.

Ward Chair Arjun Kharel proposes another solution to the employment fix. He suggests making economic activities labour-intensive by replacing heavy equipment with manpower.

Between 8 March and 2 July, more than 810,000 workers have returned home from India alone. An additional 25,000 have returned from 21 other countries, mainly in the Gulf and Malaysia.

Pre-COVID-19, approximately 1,600 Nepalis left the country per day in search of employment elsewhere. Forced out by a lack of opportunities at home, many are desperate to go back to work even if they don’t know when.

Badigad village in Baglung.

Sociologist Ganesh Gurung finds it unlikely that local governments can generate sufficient employment opportunities for returnees. It is difficult for local governments to incorporate youth, who have worked high-skilled jobs elsewhere, into lower-skilled jobs at home, he says.

Agriculture and livestock sectors have been touted as the most secure sources for temporary employment. “In this way returnees can be promptly employed and local demand fulfilled.” Gurung says.

Mass unemployment among the influx of returnees has also led to fears of a rise in crime and delinquency. Local governments have been caught unprepared by the unprecedented influx, and unless returnees can be provided with productive activity, social malpractices will rise, says Gurung.

“Crimes such as theft and violence will go up if unemployment persists,” Gurung warns. “With no access to reproductive health facilities, fertility rates will also rise. This will add to the economic crisis as there will be more mouths to feed at a time of rising unemployment.”

A night curfew was recently announced in the valley to stem the flow of returnees coming back to their homes in the capital. Testing facilities, such as the Teku Hospital, have been clogged by returnees needing COVID-19 reports to gain clearance from their landlords.

With reporting by Kamal Paudel in Baglung

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