People-to-people at India-Nepal border

Minor girls from Nepal stopped at the Indian border at Gaddachowki last week by an anti-trafficking group. They are handed over to their parents through the police if they are suspected to be victims of smugglers. All photos: NAMRATA SHARMA

The checkpoint at the India-Nepal border here has a whole range of Nepalis crossing over: innocent Nepali workers in search of jobs in India so they can support families back home, quite a few Indian workers crossing over, Nepali girls being trafficked to India, young women snared into relationships with Indians via social media, or people travelling for medical treatment in both directions.

However, the open India-Nepal border is also associated with crime and smuggling of goods, drugs, and people. The problems seem to have got worse in the past year of the pandemic, according to participants at a crossborder conference of Indian and Nepali journalists organised by the Human Rights Journalist Association in Dhangadi last week.

The conference came soon after the disappearance of a young Nepali man who plunged into the swollen Mahakali as he tried to cross Nepal’s western border into India by hanging below a wire bridge. The SSB (Indian border security force) reportedly cut the wire with a hack just as the man was crossing.

The man’s body has not been found. The case got high profile coverage in the Kathmandu media, putting Nepal’s new government in a tight spot, and threatening once more to sour the rocky relations between the two countries. 

Indian Journalist Rakesh Tiwari of the Hindustan Times in Dharchula claimed the Indian SSB would have never cut the cable on purpose while someone was crossing. 

“Actually, the border guards must have been trying to stop smuggling and did not know that a person was coming across on the wire,” said Tiwari. “It would not have been done intentionally, and unlike other border points, there have always been good relations between Nepal’s Darchula and Dharchula on the Indian side even during the pandemic.” 

Indeed, the open border between India and Nepal allows unrestricted travel in both directions, and during the pandemic checkpoints have had to deal with tens of thousands of Nepali and Indian migrant workers returning to their own countries.

The booth of the Peace and Rehabilitation Centre (PRC) stops 5-6 minors suspected of being trafficked to India at the border near Dhangadi.

Tiwari felt the death in Darchula spotlighted the border, and gave the wrong impression that there has always been tension and acrimony between people on the two sides.

Although the plight of Nepalis going to India is often highlighted in the Kathmandu press, there are other problems that go unnoticed. For example, although many Nepalis go to India for medical treatment, there are also Indians streaming to Dhangadi Hospital for treatment. But they are now stopped by the Nepali authorities because of the pandemic.

Indian journalist Mahesh Singh Bhadauria of the Dainik Jagaran Gaurifanta says this is unfortunate because Nepalis needing hospital treatment in Delhi are allowed smooth passage even during the pandemic. 

“It is very inhumane for the Nepali authorities to stop Indian patients from the border region seeking treatment in Dhangadi because they are often the poorest people,” Bhadauria said.

Participants at the conference agreed that small problems at the India-Nepal frontier tend to get magnified by the media in both countries, and ultimately it is the people living near the border on both sides who suffer from new rules and restrictions

This is especially true during the Covid-19 crisis when the most vulnerable people are put at even more risk by overcrowding and lack of sufficient testing and quarantine facilities. It is the poorest and most distressed Nepalis who suffer: either when they are trying to leave the country for India, or returning. This pushes them even deeper into a vicious cycle of poverty.

At the Indian border near here, there are again long lines of Nepali families queued up to cross over. The pandemic has heightened their desperation as they headed out to jobs in India.

Among them is a young woman carrying a baby, and she is stopped by a member of Nepali non-profit, Peace and Rehabilitation Centre (PRC), that is working to prevent human trafficking, especially of Nepali women to India.

“Where are you going in India,” asked Sanjeet Singh, at the PRC booth at the Gaddachowki checkpoint one morning last week. Although she was with an infant, she looked like a minor herself.

A man standing nearby answered on her behalf that they were going to Bengaluru to work. Not convinced, Singh asked for her Nepal citizenship card which she did not have. She looked like a minor.

The man looked disappointed. They could very well be telling the truth, but the girl who fit the profile of someone being trafficked, and the police tried to get in touch with her parents.

At the PRC booth, there is another 18-year-old girl from Dang who is accompanied by a boy from Kailali claiming to be 22, and living and working in Bengaluru. He said they wanted to get married, even though the girl was below the minimum age for marriage.

The girl said she had met the boy on Facebook, and they had been together for four years. She said at home her parents were always fighting each other, and she wanted to escape. The boy’s story was the same: they developed relationship via Facebook but it was the first time they met. He had come from Bengaluru to take her. 

Suspicious, the PRC booth handed the two over to the border police who called the girl’s father to come to Dhangadi to take her home to Dang. The boy is now in prison.

Another 21-year-old woman from Kailali was also accompanied by someone she called her “boyfriend” from Biratnagar. However, he had an Indian identity card, and said he had permission from her parents to take her to India to get married.

The PRC team was trying to contact the girl’s parents to find out if this was true. She would be in a shelter run by the centre till both parents come, and if they agree they would be allowed to cross into India. 

“We have had 5-6 cases like these every day since the pandemic,” says Umesh Shiwakoti of PRC in Kailali district. “We are at the border round the clock with the police to stop human trafficking. Sometimes it is difficult to find the facts, but we try our best.”

Such is the desperation of Nepali workers headed to India that they are willing to risk being cheated by bus operators and others to find a job in an Indian city. Many have taken loans to make the trip, and have to work many months before they can pay back the debts.