‘I and my wife go to bed hungry to keep children fed’Returning migrants in Sudurpaschim and Karnali face a bleak future. Government is still unclear how to provide help.
Raje BK of Muktikot in Bajura returned home empty-handed from Garhwal in Uttarakhand, India in March after the two countries imposed nationwide lockdowns in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Garhwal, BK chiselled stones as a daily wage worker. He had been there for just four months when he lost his job at a construction site. He had no savings. For the 48-year-old father of six young children, the crisis was immediate.
“My family was already struggling while I stayed in a quarantine facility on return to Nepal for three weeks,” he said. “My wife and I have spent many nights hungry to keep our children fed. There is no one we can seek help from.”
Thousands of migrant workers have returned home to Nepal since mid-March after the coronavirus pandemic gradually made its way to the region.
The government has promised help to them.
In this year’s fiscal budget, Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada announced an ambitious plan to create 700,000 jobs in the country. Besides, the Prime Minister Employment Programme’s fund was doubled to Rs11.6 billion to provide 100 days of employment to 200,000 people across the country.
However, a government task force has said that the country needs to generate 1.5 million jobs to avoid an unemployment crisis.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister Employment Programme, launched in February 2019 by the incumbent government, has had a dismal track record. It provided only 13 days of employment to 175,909 persons, according to its own records in the fiscal year 2018-19.
Like BK, since returning home, many in Bajura and Bajhang districts of Sudurpaschim Province are facing empty larders and a penniless future—fear of destitution has gripped them. Many in the villages are exchanging goods among neighbours, reminiscent of a barter economy from an era gone by.
“We are fast running out of goods and food grains to exchange,” said BK.
A large percentage of people from Sudurpaschim and Karnali go to India for seasonal employment as they don’t have jobs or enough land to grow food for the whole year.
Although the exact number of such migrants is not available, according to officials 157,000 have returned to Sudurpaschim Province since the pandemic, while 49,032 have returned to Karnali.
The open border with India makes the migration easy. The pandemic has left this population without regular income and there’s no certainty till when.
Jhapat Bahadur Bohara, minister for economic affairs and planning in the Sudurpaschim government, said that the new provincial fiscal budget has allocated Rs1.5 billion for self-employment fund. The fund will be used to provide loans to the returnees without security deposit to help them start their businesses. The plans on how to disburse the funds are, however, yet to be formulated.
In Karnali, officials said that each ministry has come up with employment programmes since the beginning of this fiscal year.
“We have allocated Rs2 billion to promote entrepreneurship and employment,” said Keshav Upadhyay, information officer at the chief minister’s office, Karnali.
Again, as in the case of Sudurpaschim, the modalities for the programme remain vague, and it is not clear how they will help those in need, according to Khadga Bahadur Khadka, chief of the Surkhet district coordination committee, which comprises local unit representatives in the district to coordinate government activities among local units.
Local federal units too have plans to help returnees.
Simta Rural Municipality in Surkhet district, where about 80 percent of the people go to India for seasonal employment, has allocated Rs 10 million to provide employment opportunities for the youths, according to mayor Kabindra Kumar KC.
Bajhang’s Bungal Municipality has introduced programmes to assist those willing to engage in agriculture and skill-based businesses.
“But the locals are not interested,” said Bista. “They want to go to India because they get paid more there for the same job than here.”
Bhakta Sarki from Bajura’s Duwali, a settlement of former bonded labourers who own no land, meanwhile, had resorted to begging since there was no work to be had. But after his village reported 10 cases of Covid-19, the village was sealed. “I can’t even beg any more; I am stuck at home with no money and no food,” he said.
Bajhang and Bajura are districts that reel under food insecurity every year. According to Min Prasad Jaisi of Agriculture Knowledge Centre, Bajura, the district faces a shortage of about 6,000 metric tons on average every year.
Kolti in Bajura is among the places that are highly food-insecure. Currently, the depot of the Nepal Food Corporation is empty, according to Nabin Acharya, the depot chief. “It seems the depot won’t be able to import rice until October,” he said.
“The demand is soaring but the depot has been empty and locked since mid-July.”
As in the Sudurpaschim province, in Karnali returnees are struggling to make a living, and the province faces a food crisis.
The province requires a total of 348,732 metric tons of foodstuff every year, according to the Provincial Agriculture Directorate. The province has only produced a total of 316,391 metric tons of foodstuff this year and is short of 26,018 metric tons.
Meanwhile, Dipendra Aidi, who returned from India in mid-March to Kolti, said that he is waiting to return to India after the dust of the pandemic settles.
“It’s hard to get a well-paying job here,” Aidi, who used to work as a security guard in Kerala, said. “In my village alone, there are over 200 returnees. We don’t expect much from the government. I will probably return to India after the situation eases.”