Missing migrant workers of SudurpaschimA number of men from the far west go missing in India, hundreds bring home HIV infections every year but mothers and wives still send their sons and husbands to India for livelihood.
Sita Devi Budha, resident of Lamkigaun, Dodhara Chadani Municipality-9, Kanchanpur, steals a glance now and again towards the path leading to her house. It’s become second nature to her ever since her son left for India 18 years ago and never returned. Her son, Ranga Bahadur was 22 years old now and his mother, 43. Now Sita Devi is 61 and says her son turned 40 this year.
Ranga Bahadur left home on November 2, 2004. Sitadevi remembers what he had said to her that morning: “Don’t worry mother. I will be back in five years.” Those going to work in Indian cities and towns usually return home once a year but Ranga Bahadur said he would come back after five years because back then Maoist insurgency was at its peak, youths would be coerced into joining the insurgency and elderly parents would often be harassed for not allowing their sons and daughters to join the armed insurgency. Youths, therefore, were leaving their homes at the first opportunity, to escape the conflict and the state of emergency in the country. Mothers like Sitadevi would feel a sense of relief to keep their sons away from the conflict.
Sita Devi is not at peace now. Several things have changed in Nepal since 2011 but her son has not returned home.
That was not the first time Ranga Bahadur had left home for India. He had run away when he was 14 years old and gone to India and remained out of contact for six years. But then he returned home one fine day, to his mother’s great happiness. Sita Devi still thinks her son will return home one day like he had done when young. “I have heard that India is a big country. I have heard about the missing sons returning home after 40 years. My son will return too,” said Sita Devi. “But anything can happen in a foreign land A young man who went to Malaysia died last month and his dead body is being brought home tomorrow.”
Until two years ago, Sita Devi did not feel so lonely and forlorn for she had her husband with her. Her husband, Sher Bahadur, a cancer patient, died in November last year. Their eldest son, Tula Bahadur, 45, did everything he could to save his father’s life—he took out a loan and took Sher Bahadur to Sushil Koirala Cancer Hospital in Nepalgunj and later to BP Hospital in Bharatpur but couldn’t save him. The loan had to be paid back, for which they needed to sell their land. “After his father died,” said Sita Devi pointing to Tula Bahadur, “we had to sell land to pay back the loan, for which the property had to be transferred to his [Tula Bahadur’s] name. But the youngest son [Ranga Bahadur] is also an heir to the property and thus property transfer could not take place. So the eldest son went to court and made his brother’s death certificate. Only then was the property transferred.”
This was an emotionally unsettling moment for Sita Devi. “We had to make a document to prove Ranga’s death. But I still hope he will return home.”
Nepal’s National Civil (Code) Act (2017) has a provision stating: “If a person disappears without any notice for a period of consecutive twelve years or if a person for whom it is natural to have information about such a disappeared person, has not received any information about him or her for the last twelve years, such a person shall, except in cases where an evidence establishing that he or she is alive is received, be deemed to be dead.” There also is a provision for filing a petition stating that any person who has disappeared without notice or died due to a disaster or accident and requests for a judicial declaration on such person’s death, disclosing therewith the date, place, cause of death and basis thereof, the court may, after examining the evidence, make an order of judicial declaration on the death of such a person.”
Tula Bahadur made the document on judicial declaration of death of his brother based on these legal provisions.
Ranga Bahadur is missing in India–probably lost, disappeared or dead. But his family members have no other option than to go to India for employment. After making the death certificate of his brother, Tula Bahadur sent his son, Dhruba, to India. “My brother disappeared in India. I was not willing to send my son to that place but what would I do? There is no job in Nepal and there is no alternative than going to India,” said Tula Bahadur, sighing in despair.
Gulti Dhami, 68, from Mahakali-9, Dhakanapur in Kanchanpur, was a proud mother of five sons. Then her third son, aged 9, went to New Delhi 25 years ago along with other workers from the village. He soon sent a message home that he was working at an eatery in Delhi. People coming home from Delhi would bring his messages, they would say they had seen him and he was okay. But then the messages stopped coming. His whereabouts started to become uncertain. There is no information and no messages about him for the last 25 years.
Four years after the third son went to India, Nama, the eldest son of the family, also left for India along with the villagers to Almora of Uttarakhand. It has been 21 years since he left and there is no information about him either. Those with whom Nama had left return to the village now and again and Gulti rushes to their houses to ask about Nama’s whereabouts. Nobody has a clue.
Two years after the disappearance of the first son, Gulti lost her husband, Chanda Dhami. After 45 days of mourning, the second son, Dhana Bahadur, also left for Delhi to search for work. It has been 19 years since the family last heard of him. Her eldest son, Nama, had gotten married before he left for India. Nama’s son is 26 today and has left for Shimla of India to ‘earn money.’ The second and third sons were unmarried. Her fourth son, Kara Bahadur, is in Kerala and the youngest one Ramu is in Bangalore. In her old age, she has been taking care of five grandchildren from two sons. “I had six sons. One died in childhood. Three have disappeared in India. The remaining two are also in India. They visit me sometimes,” said Gulti. When she thinks about the fate of her three missing sons, a strange fear grips her mind.
The last time Rekha Sunar, 30, offered tika to her elder brother, her only brother, Mukesh, in Tihar was nine years ago. The resident of Dodhara Chadani-9 Baduwal, Rekha celebrated Tihar with her brother in October 2012. He soon left for India to find a job. There has been no information about him since.
When Mukesh did not return home, his wife ran away to marry another man. Raj, Mukesh’s son, lives with his grandparents. Worried, Mukesh’s father Lal Bahadur went to India to search for his son. But tragedy befell this old man. He fell down and broke his ribs, making him disabled for the rest of his life. The able-bodied son, and the only son of the family, has gone missing. Lal Bahadur needs care and support at this age but he is having to care for his speech-impaired daughter and grandson deprived of parental love.
Life for Kalawati BK, 38, resident of Sikhar Municipality-10, Gahana Anmol of Doti district, has been full of ups and downs. Saraswati, her sister, died young. Saraswati’s daughter, Durga, was too young at the time. Saraswati’s parents had this premonition that after Saraswati’s death, her husband would marry another woman and Durga, their grandchild, would be deprived of parental care. So they proposed to Dambar Bahadur, their son-in-law, that he should marry their daughter Kalawati, Saraswati’s sister. Kalawati could not oppose her parent's decision. She accepted Dambar Bahadur (the husband of her sister) as her husband.
Kalawati gave birth to a son and a daughter from Dambar Bahadur. But then Dambar, who worked as a domestic help in India, disappeared.
Their son is now 17 years old and their daughter 15 but for the last 14 years there has been no information about her husband. Kalawati has been trying to find him and waiting for him to return. “There is no way of knowing where he is. There is no news of his life, no news of his death,” said Kalawati.
Now that the breadwinner of the family was lost, Kalawati had to do something for a living. So she has set up a shop in the streets and earns around Rs 200 a day, with which she is educating her daughter.
She had sent her son, who was 15 at that time, to India for a job. “My husband went to India and disappeared there. I fear the same could happen to my son. But what else would I do? India is the only place to go. We need to survive,” she said. “My son should be attending school at this age but he is washing dishes at an eatery in Punjab,” Kalawati sighed. Her son, Karan, however, stays in touch with her. He has brought a smartphone for his mother. “He has installed emojis on my mobile. He keeps phoning and asks me not to worry,” said Kalawati, her eyes full of sorrow. “I raised him by doing labour. But had to send him away to earn money at an early age. I plan to educate my daughter up to grade 12. Her brother agrees with me.”
Kalawati tried to find the whereabouts of her husband after he stopped coming home but she did not have his address. “I went to astrologers. I did not know his address in India and therefore I could not go there. But he knows his way back home. I hope he has not lost his way,” said Kalawati. “Maybe somebody killed him and threw him away,” Kalawati chokes as she says this.
Kalawati’s husband is one of the five siblings in the family but since he disappeared, Kalawati has not been able to take his share of the family property. Widows are also entitled to social security allowances but Kalawati does not qualify for this facility. “I have heard that you can make a death certificate of a person if he has not been in contact for more than 12 years. But I am not ready to believe that he is dead. But again, I don’t know how long I can live like this,” said Kalawati.
Basu Balayar, 64, is among the mothers in Sudurpaschim who are grieving their lost sons in India. Basu, who lives in Sikhar Municipality-9 Tiltali of Doti district, is the mother of five children. Her eldest son, Shankar, has been missing in India for the past 30 years. There is no information about him since he entered India at the age of 14. His father passed away without knowing if his son was alive or dead and his mother is beginning to lose hope of finding him alive. “We used to think he would come home anyway, if not today, tomorrow. Now I have lost all hope,” said Basu, sighing in despair. “My son who went to India 30 years ago did not return home. But people are going to India even today in droves. What else would they do? For there is nothing to eat at home. We all need to stay alive,” she said.
According to Basu, the village is empty of able-bodied men and youths. “There are children, and ill elderly women like me,” she said. “I have asthma, I cannot work. There are only ill people like me in the village. The rest are in India. I have heard that four others from this village have disappeared in India like my son.” In the early years, there would be people coming from India who would tell her that they had seen her son somewhere. But it has been years since she has received such a message. “I wish I had his photo with me. I could look at it when I miss him a lot but I have none. All that I have is his cheena, birth chart. I have kept it with care,” she said.
These representative cases show the mountains of hardships the people in Sudurpaschim have to climb for securing a livelihood, for which they have to depend on India. A 2017 survey by the National Environment and Equity Development Society (NEEDS, Nepal) in four municipalities of Doti and three municipalities of Kanchanpur district shows that as many as 209 men went missing in India from these seven municipalities. According to Prakash Chandra Madai, the Co-Executive Director of NEEDS, 18 men from ward number 6 and 7 of KI Singh Municipality of Doti, 100 men from Shikhar Municipality, 54 men from Dodhara Chandani Municipality of Kanchanpur, and 37 men from Punarbas Municipality are missing in India. The 2017 survey made the list of those missing from three to 25 years. According to an earlier survey by NEEDS in 2015, men from at least 70 percent of the households in Sudurpaschim go to India to find work, at least once in their lifetime.
“The wives of missing husbands who are hoping for their return one day are sending their own children to India again out of compulsion. Many have lost both their husband and sons. There are some cases of a family with more than two sons missing,” said Madai. “The local levels should call for registration of missing people through the ward offices and schemes should be introduced to address the problems of the families of missing people. Their children should be provided with scholarships and their wives should be given skills training. But none of these is a priority for the government,” Madai further said.
The 2021 census by the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that Sudurpashcim has the lowest labour force participation rate (27.3 percent) in the province-wise labour market index, which is 20 percent less than the ranking of Bagmati province (47.1), the province with highest labour force participation rate. The employment participation rate based on the population ratio is also the lowest in Sudurpashcim at 24.1 percent.
These facts, statistics and case studies clearly indicate two things.
First, the people of Sudurpaschim are among the most deprived of employment. Second, these deprived people have relied on India for generations to earn livelihood for their families, at the expense of their social and economic wellbeing. Deepak Chandra Bhatta, assistant Professor at Sudurpaschim University who is doing PhD research on Indo-Nepal Labour Migration from Tribhuvan University, argues that the state has not paid much attention towards addressing their problems because they are among the weakest class who are dependent on India for their livelihood. “People have gone missing for years, this has led to family breakdowns. The HIV infection is spreading like fire in the village. Since there are only children and the elderly left behind, there are no people to go even on a funeral procession, in the event of someone’s death. The youths of the country are disappearing. The stakes are high for the state,” he said. “They are going to India because they see no prospects in Nepal. This is why our human resources are being wasted. The state needs policies to utilise them.” According to Bhatta, 90 percent of people go to India from Sudurpaschim because of poverty. “Their aim is not to go for foreign employment and earn riches and prosperity. They only want to earn a livelihood for themselves and their families back home,” he said. “Their work is not safe and dignified. They belong to the weakest section of society. None of the state authorities seems to be concerned about it.”
The 2020 USAID report entitled “Impacts of Covid-19 on Migrants in Asia and Pacific: Rethinking Resilience,” published in December of that year, states that most Nepalis with low socio-economic status go to India because it costs much less for them than to go to the Gulf states and Malaysia. The report says: “Most of them are seasonal workers from the rural areas of western Nepal. They are active as unskilled workers in India’s informal economy. They have no job security or any social security.”
According to a report published in 2017 by the International Labor Organisation (ILO), workers associated with the informal sector account for 61.2 percent globally, they are higher in number in Nepal and India. The report shows that 80.8 percent and 88.6 percent of people are involved in the informal economy in Nepal and India respectively.
Another report entitled “Impacts of Covid-19 on Nepali Migrant Workers: Protecting Nepali Migrant Workers During the health and economic crisis” published by ILO in June 2020 mentions that of those going to India for work, nearly 86 percent are involved in daily wage labour in the informal sector, of which 26 percent are involved in agriculture and nearly 30 percent in the construction sector. They are not provided with appointment letters or labour contracts and other facilities, saving the owners from the liability of providing them with food, accommodation and health services
USAID’s report says that families spend 85 percent of remittance coming to Nepal from India on purchasing daily consumable goods, which is more than 50 percent compared to the remittance from the Gulf and Malaysia spent on daily consumable goods. “This shows that for most migrant workers jobs in India are only for sustaining livelihood. This is not about climbing the economic ladder,” says the report. The report also states that access to health services for migrant workers in India from western Nepal was too hard even before the Covid-19 pandemic. “Lack of insurance and adhar card, low wage rate, unfriendly owner, discrimination in health facilities and lack of information regarding the location of hospitals” have made living for Nepali workers difficult in India.
The open border between Nepal and India has meant that people from the two countries have unrestricted mobility from one country to another. While crossing the border people of neither country need to show their identity cards. They, however, could be stopped and interrogated by the security force, immigration officials or agencies working to prevent human trafficking. They have to show the document that proves their identity. “Showing identity cards in itself is no issue. But in the process, they also have to face abuse and harassment, and even have to pay bribes,” said Bhatta, the assistant professor of Sudurpaschim University.
Trilochan Bhatta, the chief minister of Sudurpaschim, while recalling the days when he worked as a security guard in India, had expressed commitment to address the unemployment problem of the region soon after taking office. It is clear that Minister Bhatta has failed to keep his promise. This is because the minister had no plan to prevent his people from becoming the gate keepers in India, says Gambhir Singh Air, who is a legal professional based in Dhangadhi. “He had no plan to create employment here. He had no policy vision to open companies and big industries. Mere declaration would not address this problem. The province itself does not have the wherewithal to create large-scale employment,” said Air. “Since he himself once worked as a security guard in India, he was thought to be more sensitive about unemployment here. He proved to be different.”
The chief minister argues to the contrary. He says that he is making utmost efforts to create employment opportunities in Sudurpaschim but that he has not been fully successful in this endeavour. “I could not succeed in creating employment opportunities in this province despite my relentless efforts because there are no industries here,” said Minister Bhatta. “But we have linked the unemployed youths with agriculture. There is employment in seasonal development projects. Tourism could have created more jobs but the pandemic came in the way,” he said.
‘Bambai Rog’: The fatal affliction nobody talks about
Perhaps the worst punishment that the migrants from the Far West bring onto themselves and to their homes and families after returning from India is HIV—which the locals call, the Bambai Rog (literally the disease from Bombay). At one time, there were non-governmental organisations working to identify the infected, provide treatment and prevent its spread. Mainstream media reported how the Sudurpaschim hills were being clouded by HIV spread. This would become a subject of national debate. Today, nobody seems to talk about it or be bothered about it at social and political levels.
This is particularly astounding to Chandra Kala Upadhyay, 44, resident of Kamalbazaar Municipality-5 Mansingh Gaun, Achham district. “People used to talk about it a lot in the past. The infection continues even today. It may be spreading faster but nobody cares now,” she said.
Chandra Kala has seen how threatening this disease can be.
Once her husband, who worked in India, returned home seriously ill, she took him to a hospital and the test showed he was HIV positive. He succumbed to the infection a few days later. She was also found to be HIV positive (name and picture used with her consent). “My daughter was too young. At that time I had only one prayer to God–my life is ruined but save my daughter from it,” she said. She took her daughter to the district hospital. To her relief, the test showed she was negative.
Chandra Kala now has understood more about this disease. “Being infected does not mean the end of the world,” she said.
Even as people are shying to talk about the infection or admit that they have it, Chandra Kala got her daughter married in April this year by openly declaring that she is the daughter of HIV-positive parents.
She has now understood that regular medication helps you to live life normally. She has been taking ART tablets since 2007 (she receives them from District Hospital in Mangalsen). She has put up a small grocery store at her house to support her livelihood. Chandra Kala remembers what it was like to be HIV positive in the past and how the social opinion on the infected is changing slowly and gradually. “They would abuse us in the public taps and in public places. They would not touch the things I had touched. But now things are changing. I can sell these items from my shop,” she said.
It felt like the end of the world for her after her husband’s death—she tested HIV positive, which was shocking for her, and she had to raise her daughter by herself. It soon spread that her husband had died of HIV and that she was also positive. It was then she had to face a series of abuses. But she chose to fight against the odds. “I decided to talk about it and fight this stigma publicly so that others would be safe,” she said.
Soon she found herself in a different role. She got a job as a social mobiliser in organisations working for HIV-infected people. In this new role, she would visit every household, inform the people about the benefits of taking medicine regularly, enquire if the infected are taking medicine regularly or not, keep records and ask people to go to health posts to take medicine. This raised confidence in her and she began to provide counselling to other infected women. Once a woman was infected and the villagers refused to buy buffalo milk from her house. Chandra Kala went to her and asked her not to lose hope. “There was abuse and stigmatisation in every step. It was not easy at all,” she recalled those days. “Even today the infected women with children face such a situation. Their children also face persecution. But people are not talking about it now, I wonder why.”
Based on her experience of working in the community, Chandra Kala says the root of this disease lies in India. “Even those women who have never left their homes have been infected. The women and children contract infections from the infected men returning home from India,” she said. “This has not stopped. But the campaign to identify the infected has.” When women marry second men after the deaths of their husbands they are found to have carried the infection (unbeknown to them) to other families. When the infected adults get married this could help to spread the infection. “But nobody seems to care about it at all,” she said.
Can the local governments do something about it? Chandra Kala thinks that the local government has not done what it can to address the problems. “The infected cannot do physically demanding work. The ward offices could have provided them with training or some small grant so that they could open up shops of their own. They could also have provided scholarships to the children of the infected but they did nothing,” she said.
According to Jhanak Dhungana, senior public health officer and chief at District Health Office Achcham, there were as many as 57 new infected people in the district in the fiscal year 2021-22. The number was 64 the year before that. According to the official data, 642 infected people are taking ART medicine across the district. Eight infected people died in 2021-22. However, the test with 5,000 pregnant women by the District Office showed none of the pregnant women was infected. According to Dhungana, the infected are Nepali migrant workers working in India and returning home.
HIV does not stop people from going to India to find work. Chandra Kala says she receives medicines on their behalf from the hospital and sends them to the men in India. Families from Nepal send medicine to the infected workers who lack access to medicine in India. According to District Health Office Chief Dhungana, an infected person can be given medicine for two months at one time. Thus the families of the infected can send medicines every two months from home.
ART, which used to be distributed only from District Hospital in the past, is available in more places now. A total of 208 people receive ART from Achham District Hospital Mangalsen, 220 from Bayalpata Hospital, 102 from Kamalbazaar Primary Health Centre and 112 from Chorpati Primary Health Centre. So ARTs are being distributed from four places now but the infected have to come up to these distribution centres. “If the health posts within the municipalities take up the responsibility of distributing ARTs, it would be a great relief for the infected,” said Dhungana.
(Bhawani Bhatta and Menuka Dhungana contributed reporting.)