By:- Dr.Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal & Sipu Tiwari. 7th May 2020 . For every individual born, a country represents its ties not just as a citizen, but also as a motherland. The moment I say motherland, in South Asian cultural sense, or rather specifically in Hindu culture, it represents also as a Mother. Hence the title hyphenates the word motherland. The bonding is that of a Mother to her child. The Mother is always caring, loving and is concerned of the well-being of the child. The child on the other hand not only loves the mother, but feels a close attachment and bonding apart from having a sense of duty towards the Mother. No matter how far the child goes to make a career or living, this umbilical chord links the sentiments and feelings in such a strong way that no one can replace or change. This is the linkage every citizen of Nepal has with its motherland, which is unaltered no matter where the person goes for living or earning. It is therefore, that one can find Nepalese have a high sense of nationalism and national pride. This pride or nationalist sentiments was also one of the major factors leading to the majority victory of Nepal Communist Party (NCP) led by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli in the House of Representatives.
This mother-child bonding gains greater significance during difficult times, whereby not just the concern of the child is to return to the lap of his/her mother, but the mother is more worried about the well-being of the child. However, the bonding of this child i.e. citizen of Nepal is put to hard testing by its own mother – the State. Covid-19 pandemics has surprisingly changed the color of the mother (read the State) towards its own children (read citizens), which not only refuses to welcome them back for no fault of theirs, but declines to think of the welfare or well-being of its citizens. Such is the tyranny of Nepali state today. One is forced to question, why Nepali state boasts about high remittances that forms a significant part of its economic growth? Why at this time of crisis, Nepal is having a step-motherly treatment towards some of its own citizens? Do the citizens of Nepal, who love their motherland, have a right to choose to return or not to return to their homeland? What sense of responsibility the state has towards its own citizens? Does the Nepali government differentiate between its own citizens under ‘privileged’ and ‘unprivileged’ category?
State’s Attitude: Nepalese Stranded at Indian Border
The government of Nepal initially declared a lockdown on March 24, which now stands extended till May 18, 2020. However, even until date PM Oli had declined to allow the Nepalese citizens to return to Nepal citing fear of infection spreading in the country. Soon after the lockdown, government’s High-Level Coordination Committee for Prevention and Control of Covid-19 had called upon Nepalis abroad to remain safely where they were and appealed to those countries to protect their health and safety. PM Oli while addressing the nation had called on Nepal’s diplomatic missions to be migrants’ point of contact for crucial information and support. The Nepali mission in India publicly offered telephone contacts for people in destitute to approach for help, but many complaint that no one is attending the calls and there is no way to get help from the mission, even if social media is flooded with appeals and requests.
On April 6, the government of Nepal had issued a statement saying no one would be allowed to enter at any cost, which was reiterated by the Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali. Due to the open border and special ties between India and Nepal, many citizens of Nepal often travel to India for studies and various kinds of jobs, especially to engage in construction work, hospitality industry and daily-wage labour. Although there are no recorded data of the number of Nepali citizens in India, South Asian Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SWATEE) estimates nearly 3 million Nepalese living and working in India. The actual figures can range much higher. As the nature of job is temporary, they move in-and-out of Nepal on a regular basis.
However, the sudden closure of borders and no transportation resulted in many citizens stranded in India. On March 29, Nepali police had stopped people from entering the country that even resulted in protests at the bordering area of India in the town of Dharchula, after which some were allowed to enter Nepal. There were also reports that some desperate citizens wanting to enter Nepal used the Mahakali river to swim to Nepal, but were arrested by Nepal’s police and sent to quarantine. While Qatar and some other countries have taken stringent action against Nepali workers by deporting few, India offered pro-active help and provided temporary settlement to the Nepalese stranded at the border, along with offering them free meals. Yet, the issue is of the demand from the people to return to their motherland. This raises the issue of the rights of citizens to ‘choose to return or not return’ to their motherland.
Dismay Clouds Migrants Workers
As per statistics, within a span of a decade, remittances from abroad have multiplied many folds increasing from USD 2.54 billion to USD 8.79 billion, which stands at 26 per cent of Nepal’s GDP. In order to have better living standards and due to the paucity of job opportunities in Nepal, many seek opportunities in foreign land. Although, officially permitted destinations for labour migration are 110, but the top five destinations are Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabis, Kuwait, and Malaysia, apart from India.
As the covid-19 cases rise gradually in Nepal, the apartheid treatment of Nepali citizens abroad grows stronger. It is not just fear of loosing jobs in the foreign land, but the biases against migrant workers that has culminated in a huge discriminatory attitude in many countries. With this discrimination, the already alienated group of migrant workers are reimagining their lack of sense of belongingness. The temporary home where subsistence was the only pulling force has suddenly vanished and these group of people are looking back to their permanent home, i.e. their homeland or their motherland. For them, their entire identity rests on their belonging to Nepal for which they have deeper feelings. Although, earning or living in a foreign land, return to their families at some point in time was the only hope of survival. For most of the young workers they knew that no matter how much time lapses, all they need to do is to create a well-off life for their families after which their future life will be secured back in their hometown. It is therefore that many had invested a huge proportion of their earnings back in their hometown.
However, nobody imagined that at a time when the foreign land will leave them in fear and desolate, and their desire to return will peak for they would want to share emotional low with their families, the state will become a hindrance to the sentiments. When many are looking to meet their parents, relatives, wife/husband and or children in Nepal, the state will be the step-mother ruthlessly crushing their desires.
To seek relief, even the Supreme Court of Nepal was approached. On April 17, Nepal’s Supreme court Justice Sapana Pradhan Malla issued an interim order in response to a writ petition filed by Advocate Som Prasad Luitel and others against the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers seeking relief for Nepali workers stranded in foreign countries. The court cited the provisions of Section 75 of Foreign Employment Act that stipulated “the Government of Nepal had the responsibility of repatriating Nepali migrants from labour destination countries with the help of Nepali diplomatic missions and labour attaches in the event of a pandemic, war or natural disaster.” The apex court also observed that “as per Section 33 (b) of the Act, the government might use Migrant Labour Workers Welfare Fund to bring back Nepali migrant labourers from foreign countries and provide relief to them and their families.” It highlighted the fact that taking care of all the citizens of Nepal, providing for their health care and protection is State’s obligation.
What is more interesting in this order is the understanding of equality jurisprudence. On a cursory note, the lockdown and restriction of movement of people is a generally applicable order cutting across divisions in the society. In that sense, it is universally applicable for all citizens of Nepal. However, a deeper inquiry will reflect that the effect of it on certain groups and people is more than many others, which is more reflected in the court’s order that was accepted on the basis of violation of ‘Right to Equality’. The mere fact that there are certain class of people who are devoid of their due rights to ‘choose to return or not to return’ is reflected in the current debates of greater concerns in Nepal over the issues of ‘dignity’, ‘human rights violation’ and not just ‘labour rights’ issues. The debates have resulted in an admonition of the government that is running away from its responsibilities and not fulfilling the constitutional guarantees.
Crisis Awaits for Nepal
Covid-19 pandemics although has not yet shown critical figures of cases in Nepal, yet the dangers of it loom large. It has definitely crushed the ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ plan of the government of Nepal. Nepal’s economy is hugely dependent on tourism industry apart from remittances and runs mainly on the imported products from other countries. The economy that was brimming with 6-7 per cent growth rate until 2019 is now expected to have 1.5 to 2.8 per cent growth rate in 2020 as per the World Bank, with lower remittances, lower trade and lower tourism along with other disruptions due to Covid-19.
In addition to the economic and financial decline, poverty ratios are expected to accentuate. At the USD 1.90/person per day parameter, Nepal had recorded 8 per cent in 2019, while it was 39 per cent calculated on the basis of USD 3.20/person per day. As the economy will decline, the new jobs are unlikely to be created. With the further pressure of returned migrants, the employment situation will be grim. It is therefore very likely that many lower middle class strata may fall below the poverty line. Hence, the need of the hour is for the government to make a comprehensive plan for the coming crisis; while embracing its own citizens. The mother (State) does not leave the hand of the child in the time of crisis, but think of the welfare and support to boost the morale. It is the responsibility and duty of the State to see that though a long term crisis awaits ahead, there are ways to shoulder joint responsibility to overcome the future hurdles too.
By:- Dr.Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Assistant Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Mr. Sipu Tiwari, Madhes based political commentator and writer.