Remittance: A mixed blessingWhile remittances helped cushion the effect of the earthquake to some extent, families of the migrants were torn apart by the disaster
Kalpana Koirala of Sasa, Dhading, was among the thousands who lost their homes to the April 25 earthquake, rendering her five-member family homeless. Just hours after the earthquake, her husband called her from Malaysia to inquire about the family’s safety and to know if he should return home.
Knowing that the presence of a male member of the family would make a big difference in coping with the crisis, she instinctively wanted him to return. Not to mention, the security advantages as she was living in a makeshift tent with her children and an elderly father-in-law.
But her pragmatic side prevailed, so she asked him to stay behind. There was an urgent need to build a new house. And, that required a decent amount of money. She knew the family would have to depend largely on her husband’s savings for that.
Calling him back home merely four months after his departure would mean losing both the hope and the money he invested to go aboard. The family had borrowed Rs120,000 to pay to an agent for arranging a job with a Kuala Lumpur-based manufacturing company. “It was my life’s hardest decision,” said Kalpana, a mother of two.
Following the quake that claimed nearly 10,000 lives, thousands of migrants and their families had to face similar dilemma the Koiralas went through. Many migrants, especially those losing their loved ones and working for relatively compassionate employers, did return home. Luckier ones even got free tickets and paid leave from their employers.
For example, Manar Al Omran Co, a Saudi Arabia-based company that employs more than 1,000 Nepali workers, had offered free air tickets and paid leave to dozens of its staffers affected by the earthquake.
Around 4,000 migrant workers returned home on an average every day from April to May via Tribhuvan International Airport, according to the Department of Immigration. The figure, though five times higher than that during normal times, should be still considered low given the fact that the central and western Nepal, the areas worst affected by the earthquake, are among the top migrant sending districts.
Instead of hastily returning home, most migrants chose to help their families and society with much-needed money for post-earthquake rescue, rehabilitation and reconstruction. In fact, remittances that their family members sent home became the first assistance to reach most of the earthquake survivors.
Lalita Koirala, Kalpana’s relative and next-door neighbour, said the remittance her husband sent from Saudi Arabia was the first assistance to reach them. “It took nearly two months for the government’s financial aid to arrive. Luckily, most of the affected families had at least a member working aboard,” said Lalita.
According to the Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB), remittance inflow as of mid-April 2015 rose 7.1 percent to Rs426.19 billion year-on-year, a marked improvement compared to a growth rate of just 4 percent as of Mid-March. But the NRB data does not give complete picture of the remittance coming in as a large number of migrants were believed to have opted for informal means such as Hundi to send money as many banking institutions and money transfers had temporarily halted their services for days post-earthquake.
While it was relatively easier for households with relatives in overseas jobs to cope with the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, they had their share of problems. Many families, especially the ones with elderly people and children, found it difficult to deal with the crisis in the absence of young and abler hands. In some villages, the problem was so severe there were not enough youths to rescue people from the rubble and take corpses to crematorium.
Labour crunch continue to remain one of the biggest challenges in carrying out reconstruction of earthquake-devastated structures even six months after the disaster. In the absence of sufficient skilled hands, both cities and villages are compelled to hire migrants—many of them coming from India and Bangladesh—paying higher price for reconstruction work. In some cases, these seasonal migrants from India with specific skills like plumbing, masonry and electric wiring are making more money than Nepali migrants with similar set of skills aboard.
The government’s delayed post-earthquake reconstruction alongside the authorities’ slow sluggish response in providing assistance to earthquake-affected families is likely to compel more people to go for foreign employment.
After some lull for first few months, around 1,500 migrants are leaving the
country each day. Interestingly, there has not been a significant drop in the departure of workers from earthquake-affected areas compared to past years.
Increasing workforce exodus is likely to prove even costlier for the country in which every family already has at least a working member abroad and has been exporting around half million young people every year since 2010, according to the national household survey. It could also have a severe impact on the multi-billion-rupee reconstruction project that the National Reconstruction Authority is preparing to undertake.
Under the current circumstances, it might be farfetched to expect the government to bring back migrants like Kalpana’s husband with competitive offers at home. But it can definitely bring lucrative schemes to discourage prospective migrants, both skilled and unskilled workforce.
In fact, some experts suggest the success or failure of the reconstruction project itself would rely on how effectively the government uses local resources and manpower to build back better.