Flights of desperationDespite adopting democracy, we fail to address the most pressing but simple needs of downtrodden people.
Opening with sweeping aerial shots of the pristine Mahakali Valley—a stark contrast to the lived experiences of its residents, Kumau ko Katha, from the YouTube series Herne Katha, is an exploration of the psychological and physical distress of Nepali migrant workers toiling away in India. The recent episode is a heartbreaking watch for many viewers, shining a light on the true costs of keeping our anaemic economy running. The 45-minute documentary is about the thousands of Nepali migrant workers working in the Indian city of Pithoragarh. These workers are from the adjoining mountain districts of Nepal, where seasonal migration to the Indian cities to earn some cash income has been the common practice for decades. Irrespective of their age, they do all kinds of odd jobs, from working on construction sites to carrying loads of construction materials and consumer goods for traders and retailers in the city. Women also earn as domestic workers. While watching the episode, the question that seemed to plague most viewers was: Why do fellow Nepalis feel the need to go through such hardships and endure misery?
The documentary succinctly lays out the domestic factors that compel Nepalis to migrate, their hopes of earning enough and supporting families back home, the emotional trauma they face every day and the sorry state of being a migrant worker with a dismal present and an uncertain future. Their identity is limited to being labourers from the neighbouring country’s poor mountain community. Each of those interviewed in the documentary had a similar story: They migrated to escape the grinding poverty stemming from meagre farm incomes that barely lasted six months, the lack of off-farm employment opportunities, and negligible help from the state to soothe their troubles.
As migrant labourers, even if they’re compelled to keep their nose to the grindstone day in and day out and have to endure the alienation that comes with feeling disconnected from their homeland, they find some contentment. It is because they have some source of income. They can feed their families well and, importantly, ensure a better future for their children by sending them to school. Some are even able to save some money to send back home and invest in property.
Incidentally, watching this documentary takes one back to what the first Agriculture Conference, held as early as 1958, had to say about the state of migration at that time. The conference had recognised that the degradation of natural resources and the deterioration of farms and farming systems had led to low farm productivity, forcing the youth to migrate from the hills for jobs in other countries, contribute to their progress, and return home only when they were old, weak, and otherwise unable to work to make a living in the poor homestead. Unfortunately, our current situation is even worse six decades after this alarming declaration. A large number of youths are compelled to join the migrant labour force for a living not only in India but in many other parts of the world as well. Undoubtedly, our efforts to improve people’s lives over the past 60 years have utterly failed. The series of political reforms that took place since the conference couldn’t inspire confidence in people; they only further frustrated them.
Sliding social mobility
The problems cited by the workers in Pithoragarh were the same as we’ve heard for decades: Dismal farm yields, lack of irrigation, no industries to offer employment, and no capacity to educate their children. These issues have always been prioritised by government plans on paper, yet we haven’t made a crumb of difference for millions in more than half a century. Shouldn’t this raise questions about our ability to even recognise where we’re falling short? Even after adopting democracy, we fail to address the most pressing but simple needs of downtrodden people. We may continue to pat ourselves on the back for having an inclusive and transparent system, but what good is it if it persistently isn’t able to ignite confidence in the youth?
Many of us witnessed the real pains and struggles of migrant workers during the pandemic. They had no jobs or savings to tide them over during lockdowns. They couldn’t get support and security because they were non-citizens; nor could they return because of travel restrictions. Many were stuck where they were, with minimal health care facilities, poor living conditions, devoid of work and no money or any means to survive. Those who somehow arrived at the border weren’t allowed in without quarantining properly. And yet, despite all the adversities and vulnerabilities, when the travel restrictions eased a little, people returned to work across the border because it was even harder to stay home with the absence of any income.
Whether it’s those trying to escape poverty like the ones we’ve seen in Pithoragarh or the elites who migrate for better opportunities, downward social mobility is common for both. Often, even the people who have enjoyed the privileges of caste, wealth, social hierarchy and so on at home become a minority in the country to which they migrate, let alone those who are already at the lower rungs of society in the home country. The everyday pain they experience as they adapt to the new culture only deepens—from micro-aggressions to bigoted xenophobia. For some, assimilation is a painful experience.
There’s no denying that migration has always been a part of civilisation. People have migrated throughout history, either in the quest for better opportunities or as an escape from poverty and conflict. However, the trauma and distress associated with migration that came out so strikingly in the documentary should make us rethink why fellow Nepalis voluntarily endure such misery.
Farm production isn’t going to improve overnight, nor will industrial development grow in a predictable future to engage the youth already looking to join the labour market annually. In addition, with rising economic and ecological crises, migration is going to rise exponentially, pushing more Nepalis into this cycle of hardship and suffering. There’s a clear message that migrant workers have consistently sent to decision makers. Unfortunately for all of us, but particularly for our most desperate citizens, these decision makers have failed us just as consistently. If left unaddressed, people will simply continue to look beyond our borders for a means to build a future as they have for decades.