Rohit, Amit and Dhana
Rohit is from Bihar and drives an auto rickshaw in Mumbai. Life has been a struggle ever since he lost his parents in a car crash. Like many young men from Bihar in this big city, he migrated here to make a living.
Then came the pandemic in 2020, and the lockdown meant that Rohit had no income at all. He and his family had to rely on the municpality’s two free meals a day.
“Mumbai belongs to the rich, except during elections,” says the 23-year-old as he negotiates the city’s dreary traffic, recalling how his wife and young son were evicted from their room for unpaid rent.
But one day a miracle happened. A Nepali caregiver named Manjeela, whom Rohit knew, came to the rescue and along with her two daughters offering his family shelter and food for a few weeks.
Rohit says he and his wife struggled to comprehend Manjeela’s generosity. Why was she going out of her way to help a poor family when their own family in Bihar had refused to help them?
“I am so used to people turning their back on me that I just did not understand Manjeela’s kindness. It felt uncomfortable to accept such a genuine gesture,” he adds.
Manjeela then found out from the media that the popular Bollywood actor Sonu Sood was helping migrant workers like Rohit with transportation to their homes. She coordinated with Sood’s team and registered Rohit and his family so they could travel back to Bihar.
“Sonu Sir came to see us off and I even got to shake his hands,” smiles Rohit.
Had it not been for Manjeela and Sonu Sood, Rohit knows he would have been one of the hundreds of thousands walking home to their villages along train tracks, evicted and penniless -- an iconic image during India’s first lockdown in early 2020. “What other option did we have? Even thinking about the possibility of walking back brings tears to my eyes,” he says.
Adds Rohit: “For tens of thousands like me, Sonu was a real-life hero. But for my family specifically, Manjeela was an angel. I will never be able to forget what they did for me and my family.”
A quiet man with a wide smile, 45-year old Amit spent a decade in Saudi Arabia taking care of a family of 7, alongside three other South Asian migrants including a Nepali housemaid.
He had come home to India for his nephew’s wedding when Covid-19 hit, and he was stuck because of a Saudi ban on flights because of the Delta outbreak. Two years later, it finally looks like he can rejoin his employment, but only by making a convoluted journey through Kathmandu for a flight to Riyadh.
India has finally been lifted off the Saudi red list, but direct flights from Mumbai are unaffordable for Amit. That is why he is flying from Delhi to Kathmandu along with three other stranded Indian migrant workers. This is a less expensive option – at least that is what his agent told him.
Agents are skillful at finding loopholes around flight bans and restrictions, and provide options for desperate workers like Amit. But the Kathmandu option is also expensive for him: he had to pay the agent ₹85,000, including costs for a two-week quarantine in Nepal.
It was not an ideal arrangement, given pre-Covid flights were a fraction of what he is paying now, but Amit says at least he will start earning again soon. The uncertainties brought by Omicorn might trap him for extended periods once again, but he cannot afford to take any more chances.
“For now, the priority is my daughter’s wedding,” says Amit who will have to pay the groom up to ₹400,000 (Rs640,000) in dowry. This is over 15 months of his wages, even if he were to save every paisa. There are other regular costs to take care of back home -- for food, medicine, loans for the ticket and his children’s education, making it difficult to save even a small portion of his earnings.
Amit looks out of the plane’s window (pictured right) at Himalayan peaks as the plane begins its descent into Kathmandu. He says: “The work in Saudi is not easy. What work is easy? But it pays, and that’s what matters. I can save ₹25,000 a month, and that’s more than double of what I can earn in India.”
Dhana is from Gulmi district in Nepal, and is finally flying home from Delhi after the pandemic hit two years ago.
“Nepal is so close, yet I have not seen my family for two-and-half years,” he says.
For many Nepalis, a work stint in India is a stepping stone to go to Malaysia or the Gulf. They can save enough in India to afford to pay recruiters for the overseas jobs.
But Dhana’s work history is unique. He has been to India before, then to Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, UAE and he has come right back to India after his boss in the UAE transferred him to look after his home in India.
Older Nepali migrant workers find the culture and familiarity of India more appealing, even though the earnings may not be as much as elsewhere. Many others are here for seasonal work as drivers or security guards because they cannot afford to pay recruiters for jobs in the Gulf. Younger Nepalis, however, do not find India as appealing.
Despite being one of the largest destination countries for Nepali workers, India seldom gets the attention it deserves and is treated akin to internal migration. There is no precise count of Nepali workers in India because of the open border and no requirement for permits. But this migrant workforce suddenly became visible during India’s Covid lockdowns as Nepalis streamed back in the hundreds of thousands.
Dhana himself works at an Indian household, so was spared during Covid-19. But he knows of many Nepalis who suffered. Four of his acquaintances who lived close by lost their lives during the 2021 Delta peak.
Deaths of Nepali workers in India also go largely unnoticed -- with or without Covid-19. There is no count, no compensation to families of the deceased, and no government help with repatriation as happened from the Gulf or Malaysia.
“The only consolation is that here you can expect that full procedures will be followed during funerals according to Hindu rituals which you probably cannot expect elsewhere,” says Dhana. “The Nepal government should compensate families of the deceased as they are from the poorest families.”
But he is quick to note the privileges of being a migrant in India versus other countries where he has lived and worked. “You don’t become undocumented in India. You are not obliged to stay with the same employer,” he says.
Dhana should know: he has spent months hiding in the jungles of Johor Baru in Malaysia with 19 other Nepalis to avoid raids when he became undocumented because his employer went bankrupt.
He quit his job in Saudi Arabia after three months despite having paid Rs100,000 to a recruiter. In both cases, he felt trapped as he wasn’t able to exit the countries without incurring fees, and was mentally stressed.
After making a full circle back to India where he had spent over a decade in his early twenties before venturing to Malaysia and the Gulf, he values the freedom for Nepali workers like him in India.
Some names have been changed.