From Katari to Qatar
Beset by political troubles, the Nepali state, both directly and indirectly, has forced its citizens to migrate
The Kathmandu Post
30 May 2014
If frustrated with Nepal’s wretched economic condition, read any volume of the country’s economic history, particularly ones by Mahesh Chandra Regmi and you will understand that the Nepali state has had disorganised economic policies since its inception. Furthermore, works by authors like Leo E Rose, Ludwig Stiller and Regmi himself suggest that the country has had a tough time politically remaining sovereign amidst the imperial British, ambitious Chinese and its own internal rifts. On one hand, Nepal has been suffering from economic mismanagement and on the other, undergoing chronic political chaos from within and without. One generalisation that could be made here is that Nepal was so preoccupied with the political problems it faced that it put its economic priorities secondary.
Nepal’s disastrous economy was characterised in its feudal past by high taxation and the haphazard seizure of personal property. Additionally, the trend of redistributing personal and state resources to a handful of sycophants was widespread. Many individuals with scant or no property were forced to stay subject to the few who controlled plenty. These individuals without property were possibly those who had lost their possessions to the state or because they had no option other than to barter their land at unequal rates. As a result of the lack of resources, many chose to migrate from their ancestral lands, away from the influence of oligarchs and the oppressive regime. Thousands of Nepalis from the eastern region of Nepal primarily migrated to Bhutan, Burma, and various Northeastern Indian states; those in the western region escaped farther to Kumaon and Garhwal in India and the rest went to other neighbouring areas.
Politically, Nepal had a tough time surviving as a country. Because Nepal could have never withstand the mighty British, the state had to adopt measures to appease them. The British were rich and turned away happy and those in power in Nepal gained a lot. To earn the recognition of the British and continue to exist as a nation-state and accumulate illicit monies, as elaborated by authors like Kanchanmoy Mojumdar, starting formally in 1885 and informally more than seven decades earlier, the Nepali state started exporting the only exploitable resources they had—their men. Thousands of Nepalis were then sent as mercenaries around the globe. Recruitment entailed any able-bodied man during the First World War without any of the measures that are adopted these days. It might also have been the case that some just went beyond the Nepali borders to avoid getting sacrificed in the British-Indian army, further exacerbating the rate of involuntary migration.
The point I am trying to make is that because of the state policies towards its citizens, Nepalis have always been migrating away from Nepal and the overwhelming number of out-migration observed today is just a continuing trend of something that has always happened. This is not something new; Nepal’s economic policies have always failed to help its citizens generate ample income inside the country and therefore, retain them. The country’s politics has been so fragile that it has always taken front seat, superseding all issues of concern to make a nation prosperous.
During a recent visit to one of Nepal’s eastern districts, I had a chance to speak to a number of migrant returnees, most of whom had returned after working in Qatar, Malaysia and India. A common voice that every migrant, and for that matter even non-migrants, had was that no one should go abroad and rather, should work inside the country. This was particularly in relation to the physical and mental hardships of working outside the country, especially in the Gulf and Malaysia. Despite this feeling, thousands continue to go abroad and there is no hint that the trend will decrease (I am not trying to suggest that migration should be stopped but that some degree of organisation is a must, especially given the increasing cases of human trafficking, death and abuse brought about by foreign employment). In 2013-14 alone, more than 450,000 labour permits were issued by the Department of Foreign Employment (which does not enlist those going to India or those going elsewhere for work via irregular means).
This brings me to my initial point about Nepal’s economic policies. Although the state is not hostile towards its citizens anymore and does not literally cause them to run away from their homes, one can argue that it is no better than its predecessors of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century. One person from Katari in Udayapur suggested that migrants have realised that going abroad is not a very good idea. People have the understanding that if they invest the effort that they spend in foreign countries, they can prosper in Nepal itself. However, a lack of state policies fostering employment generation and the unavailability of a market-friendly environment could be a vital factor that is forcing migrants to choose alternatives such as foreign employment.
One clear understanding is that if there were ample opportunities inside the country, migrants would definitely have not gone abroad. However, policymakers have been so overwhelmed with political instability that they seldom had a serious chance to strengthen the economy. As a result, people have been forced to migrate. So while we can argue that people have chosen to go abroad for their personal betterment, we can also argue that it is the (in)action of the state that has been forcing its citizens to find alternatives beyond its borders.
Sharma is a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility