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Nepal relaxing lockdown afterall

Finance and Information Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada told a media briefing on Wednesday evening that the Cabinet extended the COVID-19 lockdown till 18 May, but it had also decided to relax rules on manufacturing, industries and banking sectors. 

These would be partially opened with certain restrictions on distancing and health monitoring of workers, and that the decision about opening up would be done in coordination with local governments. 

The industries included in the list are: food production and processing, dairies, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment manufacturers, water supply, brick kilns, livestock and fisheries, feed industries, sugar, tea and LPG. Also to be opened will be noodles industries, bakeries, poultry, dairy, and processing of other agricultural products.

Among the non-food industries to be relaxed are cement, paint, plywood, plastic pipes, sand and crushers, steel and electrical equipment.

However, the following rules apply: factories cannot have more than ten workers in one place at a time, and workers get health check-ups daily. For the time being, workers also need to stay in dorms, and eat in canteens at their workplaces, without coming in contact with local people or family members.

Women moving Nepal’s climate activism

Photo: NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

When Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old Indian climate activist was arrested last month for sharing online information related to the farmers’ protest in India, it put a spotlight on the importance of young women in the region spreading awareness about the climate crisis.

A generation ago, ‘climate change’ was a foreign term in Nepal and there was very little understanding or awareness of it in the media and in society. This saddened Bindu Bhandari, and it made her think about Nepal’s position as one of the most vulnerable countries to the global impact.

“When I started working on climate in 2014, I was an undergraduate student, and still didn’t know about these issues. I became concerned that the real victims of climate change don’t know much about it and have few ways to adapt to it,” says Bhandari, who currently works as climate program associate at Climate Interactive.

A student of veterinary science, Bhandari began to see the linkages between climate change and what she was studying: “We are in the frontlines of climate change. But that does not mean that we are simply victims. It’s also an opportunity.”

Bhandari’s work now involves using interactive tools, role playing games, and workshops to teach people about the climate emergency and how it affects Nepal.

(clockwise) Climate activists Sagarika Bhatta, Shilshila Acharya, Shreya KC, and Bindu Bhandari

The organisation has developed games that simulate scenarios of proposals to reduce greenhouse gases, and pathway tools that help visualise change. Bhandari takes these games to schools, and to other stakeholders involved in forests, energy, activism, corporate world, and in diverse ranges of cultures and professions, providing trainings.

Shilshila Acharya is with the Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI) which reaches out to young people. She has engaged in education and engagement activities related to youth in climate issues through three to five-day courses on climate change in different parts of Nepal, reaching more than 1,100 students so far. The Covid-19 restriction actually worked in HCI’s favour, as it helped scale up, reaching up to 600 students in a single online batch.

“We want to teach youth to implement sustainable ideas,” says Acharya. “We are providing local level government fellowships to 60 fellows. They need to identify problems and design sustainable solutions.” Acharya and her colleagues support young students to design their own approaches to climate change. Their ideas are developed into projects to be implemented and funded by the local municipality.

One of these is the Hamri Bahini initiative, which supports women from low-income groups to make and sell cloth bags to discourage the use of plastic bags, while also helping the creators of the bag understand the impact of the climate crisis.

“Public campaigns not just help make the issue visible in the media, but also remind people to think of climate issues,” says Acharya.

Sagarika Bhatta, who founded Power Shift Nepal, often leads such public campaigns. Educational programs about the relationship between climate change, city, gender, mountain and agriculture are some of the areas of their work. The participants are women aged between 18-24 who engaged in research on climate change policy, followed by activism.

“Power Shift Nepal has campaigned against oil drilling exploration in Nepal. We are also collecting signatures from environmentalists against increased taxes for electric vehicles. Such outreach programs and campaigns help raise awareness of climate issues among a larger audience,” says Bhatta. Campaigns related to fossil fuel free urban space and how to transfer to renewable energy have been some of their latest activities.

Climate change is known to impact women in remote, rural areas more severely, but little knowledge or awareness is available to those regions in terms of how they can combat its impact. With young women in urban centers stepping up activism and awareness, there is newfound hope that their work will help spread understanding on the issue.

In December 2020, the Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoFE) approved a Gender and Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, which many activists marked as an achievement. But the work to change the way the issue is perceived and misunderstood, and to raise Nepal’s voice in international platforms continues to be an uphill one.

Nepalese Youth for Climate Action (NYCA) is one such voluntary group, a loose network of youths that works to make children and youth aware of climate change through research, advocacies and awareness programs. Their presentations called “Climate Talk” and a talk series called “Green Discussion” on Youtube, are recorded in schools and colleges, which gives students a platform to have a say in climate change.

“With a secretariat at Clean Energy Nepal, we work on zero funds. We often approach other organisations for financial support to organize conferences, etc.,” says Shreya KC, coordinator of NYCA. “It’s not always easy, but our passion for the environment keeps us going.”

 Sewa Bhattarai is a consultant for the Road to COP26 Project, which is funded by FCDO and implemented by the British Council.

The steadfastness of a long-distance runner

Photos: DRISHNA STHAPIT

When 11-year-old Asha fled to Kathmandu from her hometown in Rolpa with a friend, her only wish was to earn some money to pay for school. Having lost her mother at a young age and with a father who was not supportive, she knew she would have to fund her own education.

But however attractive the bright lights of Kathmandu may have seemed from remote Rolpa, the reality of the chaotic and fast-paced capital was different. 

“One of my friends suggested we work in a brick kiln in Kathmandu like many other families from Rolpa. She said we could earn enough money to pay for school.” And so her yearning for an education drove Asha to begin the back-breaking job hauling bricks on a basket on her back. 

Carrying bricks and piling them up in heaps regularly was not just tedious, but also difficult for the young girl. Asha started looking for other options that would at least allow her to study, and it looked like working at a restaurant would be better.

“I washed dishes, cleaned tables, and served the customers all day. I wanted to study but my employers would taunt me for not doing my job properly whenever I tried to make time for my books,” she recalls. For five years, she toiled all day in the restaurant, and read her text books into the night until fatigue lulled her to sleep.

Then one day, some women showed up at the restaurant where she worked. They identified themselves as representatives of a group called Shakti Samuha, a non-profit anti-human trafficking organisation, and recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2013.

“Two women came to the restaurant and asked me if I would like to go with them. I told them I would go if they sent me to school,” recalls Asha. That day marked the beginning of a new phase of her life.

“This organisation has not only provided me education but also given me a new perspective in life,” she says about Shakti Samuha, which was founded by the survivors of human trafficking and has been working to rescue girls and young women, and rehabilitate them. 

It stepped up its activities after the 2015 earthquake and the pandemic to counter a spike in trafficking. In 2011 founder and trafficking survivor herself, Charimaya Tamang, received the Hero Acting to End Modern-day Slavery Award from Hilary Clinton.

For the past two years, the shelter has been Asha’s home. Instead of waking up to a row of bricks or a pile of dishes and the feeling of a floor scrub clutched in her palms, she now stretches her legs, running four hours every morning.

The 18-year-old is one of the six athletes selected for the Exchange and Empower program 2021, by the Mira Rai Initiative, a nine-month intensive training for Nepali long-distance runners. Mira Rai is now a household name in Nepal and abroad for her ultra-marathon wins, and for the initiative to give young Nepali women like her the same opportunity to show their athletic spirit.

Photo: GOPEN RAI

Asha still has time for her English language lessons and receives counseling to help her transition from a childhood of hardship.

“The women and girls in our organisation have been through difficult times, from sexual exploitation and abuse to life-threatening working conditions. We work to provide them any kind of assistance needed from shelter support, education, skill-developing training to psychological counseling,” says Neera Dulal at Shakti Samhua.

Since it began working with vulnerable women, Shakti Samuha has educated over 1,500 children and sheltered 1,027 survivors of trafficking, supporting them towards financial and emotional stability.

“We provide both educational and extracurricular help so that they have the opportunity to choose what they want to become in the future,” says Dulal. And that was how Asha stumbled upon her newfound passion to run. Now in Grade 7, the course books demand a lot of Asha’s attention, but she makes sure to set aside the time to train to become a runner.

“I have had a difficult childhood. But my passion for sports and the opportunity to go to school has helped me overcome my past traumas,” she says.

As a grantee of the Mira Rai Exchange and Empower Program 2021, which has already helped 10 female athletes in last two years, Asha has found support for marathon training, education, and professional development. “We are very proud to see Asha doing what she loves and excelling at it. It gives us hope for so many others,” says Dulal.

While years of hard labour has given Asha a timid countenance, an inquisitiveness and zeal for learning blaze in her eyes when she speaks. 

“There was a time when I could not even write my name or talk to people. I was afraid and did not understand where life would lead me,” she says. “Now, I have people who are supporting me to fulfill my dreams. I think I’m going to keep running.” 

Some names have been changed.

A taste of Nepal’s Rana Past

When a cookbook makes a reader drool, and just turning the pages gets the digestive juices going in anticipation, it means the content is a culinary masterpiece.

Those conditions are fulfilled in Rohini Rana’s mouth-wateringly illustrated book Rana Cookbook: Recipes from the Palaces of Nepal being launched on Friday in Kathmandu after being delayed for a year due to the pandemic. This lavishly illustrated collection of recipes from the House of the Ranas has been worth waiting for.

RANA DISH: Spending an afternoon with Rohini Rana in her kitchen as she prepares one of her favourite dishes from her new cookbook, is like going back in a time machine to the royal kitchens of Baber Mahal to rediscover preparations of her ancestors.

Nepal’s Rana dynasty ruled for over 104 years, and is best known for ornate wedding cake palaces. These vast stucco structures were influenced by neo-classical architecture of England and France that prime ministers Jang Bahadur Rana and Chandra Shumsher Rana were impressed by during their visits to Europe in different centuries.

The Rana era generally gets a bad press in Nepal because the rulers were replaced by the Shahs after 1950s, and most of their achievements were air brushed by later historians. Ranas were known for their luxurious lifestyle, sometimes bordering on decadence.

They were epicures, and the wining and dining was of epic proportions. Rana cuisine was a distinctive fusion of Mughlai dishes blended with Nepali preparations and ingredients. Some of the recipes were actually brought to Nepal by the khansama chefs brought in from Lucknow by Jung Bahadur Rana after the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Even though they were Muslim, they collaborated with the Hindu cooks in the Rana palaces to come up with a unique blend that can be called ‘Rana cuisine’.

Rohini Rana was the daughter of Rajamata Anant Kumari of Awagarh, one the princely states of India’s Uttar Pradesh. It was a tradition in those days for Indian and Nepali nobility to intermarry, and she wed Gaurav SJB Rana, the great-grandson of Chandra  Shumsher Rana, and who was Nepal Army chief from 2012-2015.

“Growing up as the youngest sibling in one of the most beautiful hill stations in northern India I had an idyllic childhood. I was loved and, I admit, slightly pampered,” recalls Rana, who is better known by her nickname, Dolly. “Summers in Nainital were endless lunches and dinners with tables piled high with food.” 

Family members were such foodies that they spent one meal planning and discussing the next one. In Kathmandu, Dolly had to get used to life in a palace, and it was the common interest in food preparations that helped her blend right in.  

Gen Gaurav Rana is the seventh generation of his clan serving in the Nepal Army, and  Dolly accompanied her husband on various UN peacekeeping and diplomatic postings abroad as well as to remote regions of Nepal.

It was when Gen Rana was posted to the Nepal Army base in Suparitar in Makwanpur in the 1990s that Dolly started working on her cookbook. She prepared many of the dishes herself from the training she got from her husbands’ nanny, Chiniya Champa, whose father also worked in Baber Mahal palace.

Rana cuisine retains much of its Nepali heritage as a substrate on which are added the Mughal-inspired embellishments. So there is the basic दाल, भात, तरकारी cooked with uniquely Nepali spices like जिम्बु, टिमुर, and तामा  that distinguish the Nepali staple from north Indian food. While north Indian cuisine is noted for its rich and thick gravy, Nepali food comes with lighter झोल, भुटन, कवाफ.

Back in Kathmandu, Dolly started collecting and documenting recipes from Rana palaces, and found that each clan had a slightly different variant of the basic preparations. Dolly believes that the culinary heritage of her ancestors is just as important to preserve as its monuments and historical landmarks.  

“The cuisine is part of our cultural heritage, and it is in danger of disappearing with the passing of generations,” says Rana. “this book took me three decades to prepare, three years to give it its final touches. It is a labour of love.” 

Indeed, that shows in the meticulously described recipes listed conveniently and delightfully under carnivorous-sounding chapters: Bandel, Khasi, Chara, Macha, Haans, Jangali Janawar, Jangali Chara, although it may now be illegal in Nepal to hunt some of these wild beings. There are also chapters on Daal, Bhuja, Tarkari, Roti, Khane Kura, Achar, and to hit the sweet spot, Guliyo. The book has a handy and neatly ordered list of recipes at the end to make it easier to find what you want.

The book is tasted and tested in Nepal, pages designed with exquisite food photography by Mannsi Agrawal, only the printing was done in India. Ex-king Gyanendra Shah, who was himself partly raised in a Rana household, writes in the preface: ‘I have to confess that I have learned quite a few things I didn’t know before I read this book. What’s more, I’m certain that I still don’t know all.’ 

US museum returns stolen Nepal god

The original 12th-century Laxmi-Narayan stolen in 1984. Photo: LAIN SINGH BANGDEL In Sotheby’s catalogue in 1990. Photo: ERIN L. THOMPSON The deity in the Dallas Art Museum in 2014. Photo: ERIN L. THOMPSON

The stone figure of Laxmi-Narayan had been worshipped at a shrine in Patan’s Patko Tole for 800 years. But on one night of 1984, it disappeared. 

The holy androgynous composite of the two deities was so important to the community that local people replaced it with a poor replica. 

In 1990, the the 12th-century statue, which is also known as Vasudeva-Kamala was spotted at the Sotheby’s auction house based in New York. After that it disappeared again until American artist Joy Lynn Davis located it via a Google image search to the Dallas Museum of Art.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is finally taking possession of the 70kg figure on Tuesday, and delivering it to the Nepal Embassy in Washington on 5 March, American Art Crime Professor, Erin L Thompson, who has been tracking this and other stolen antiquities, told Nepali Times.

“I am happy that the museum saw its retention of the work was unjust,” Thompson said. “I continue to be dismayed that museums and collectors demand the type of proof about the date and circumstances of theft that existed in this case, since this information has so often gone unrecorded elsewhere. No work of Nepali sacred art left the country legally, that is the essential fact.”

The Laxmi-Narayan figure as memorialised by Joy Lynn Davis in 2015. Painting by: JOY LYNN DAVIS

 Heritage activists and local communities in Nepal say the return of Laxmi-Narayan statue could be the start of a process of repatriating thousands of other religious objects from Kathmandu that are now in Western private collections or museums. 

“We are glad our god has been located in Dallas and is being returned, but we must also ask ourselves whether we are up to taking good care of it,” Bhairaja Shrestha, a social activist of Patko Tole told Nepali Times last year, adding that the community’s festivals and rituals were affected after the god was stolen.

The image of the 15th-century deity was first published in Indian historian Krishna Deva’s book Images of Nepal in 1984, followed by Nepal’s art historian Lain Singh Bangdel’s book Stolen Images of Nepal. 

Artist Joy Lynn Davis painted Kathmandu’s shrines and depicted the stolen deities in them in gold, and held an exhibition of her work in 2015 that included a painting of the Patko Tole shrine.

She says, “The day the Laxmi Narayan arrives in Nepal, I will be the happiest person—so many people and organisations have worked on this. The only way to protect them is to increase awareness about their significance. We have a lot of work to do, Laxmi-Narayan is just the beginning.”

Bhairaja Shreshta at the Patko Tole shrine last year, with the replica of the Laxmi-Naryan.

The Lalitpur Metropolitan Office has offered to pay for the shipment of the Laxmi Narayan, and to restore it to its original shrine in Patku Tole after a ritual chhama puja.

The Nepal Embassy in Washington has said it will start the process of sending the deity back to Nepal, and denied media reports that it did not have the money for air freight. 

Kumar Raj Kharel, the deputy chief of mission at the embassy, told Nepali Times: “I was misquoted. We have never said that we cannot pay for the logistics, just that we cannot send it to Nepal immediately. We had to look at the cost, insurance, and fulfil the lengthy bureaucratic process of consulting with the ministries of finance, culture, foreign affairs, and the Department of Archaeology in Kathmandu before dispatching it.”

The 1993 exhibition East Meets West: Sculpture from the David T. Owsley Collection at the Dallas Museum of Art where the Laxmi-Narayan can be seen at centre, right. Photo: Dallas Museum of Art

Thousands of stolen statues of Nepal to date remain in the display of international museums in many parts of the world and more that are found in the US, some may have provenance and some may not. 

Kharel added, “We hope the repatriation of the Laxmi-Narayan to Nepal will set a precedent for locating and returning other stolen images.” 

He said museums and collectors with stolen antiquities from Nepal need to be responsible and abide by the UNESCO’s Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Art Crime Professor Erin Thompson agrees. She says, “Every art lover in America has a responsibility to look at the art we see and ask if it is right for us to have it here.”

Two decades of debate on female migration

When we last wrote about Nepal’s Department of Immigration’s proposal requiring women under 40 years to obtain permission letters from family members and the local ward, it was heavily resisted.

The fights, those before us had to pick to change the status quo on female emigration are no different than the present. The recent proposal was a chilling reminder that we are just going around in circles.

Over the last two decades since this newspaper started covering the issue, the stories we tell are all the same: women bypassing restrictive policies due to desperation or aspiration, the risks that women are willing to take for a better shot at life for themselves and their families.

The rationale for the Department of Immigration’s reactionary proposal showed that the response to exploitation and abuse of female migrants has not moved beyond knee-jerk bans and travel restrictions.

Going back through the Nepali Times archive to find references to the state trying to keep Nepali women tied up at home reveals the complexities of the issue:

In the very first #0 prototype edition of this paper Jasmine Rajbhandary in her Women to Women column wrote about how female immigration officials at Kathmandu airport also extort female passengers: ‘I would dare to say that almost every female in Nepal at some point or another has felt unsafe, insecure or uncomfortable in her surroundings and those in it.’

Jasmine Rajbhandary’s column in the very first issue of Nepali Times in 2000 about her ordeal at Kathmandu airport

In its 19 October 2001 issue, Nepali Times conducted an online reader poll on whether the government should lift restrictions on Nepali women going to the Gulf to work. Nearly 1,000 people responded, with over 60% saying yes. It showed that this has always been a contentious issue. Some of the responses are quite revealing (see screenshot).

In an interview, Renu Rajbhandari of the Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC) in March 2002, points to bills on abortion and domestic violence that would impact women: ‘The patriarchal notion of the state is strongly evident in the bill(s).”

In the 10 January 2003 edition, Nepali Times reporter Hemlata Rai explained how the high profile suicide of Kani Sherpa in 1998 after being sexually abused by her Kuwait-based employer led to the ban of women going to the Gulf for foreign employment. But even then, there was a realisation that the ban was not serving its purpose. She quotes Binda Pandey of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT): “It is the government’s obligation to guarantee safety of its citizens. Preventing women from foreign employment is violating women’s basic human rights to conceal its own weaknesses.”

In 30 July 2004, reporter J B Pun Magar in an article titled ‘Manpower Agencies and Women’s Power’ showed how abuse abroad had not deterred Nepali women from migrating for household work in the Gulf. He quotes Maya GC who was exploited and sexually abused but was still migrating for work in Qatar: “I know it may happen again, but look at the situation in our country”.

Another woman named Anita from Palpa who managed to escape from an abusive employer in Kuwait, said in a taped message to her family how she had been duped by an acquaintance from the village. (See screenshot)

Anita’s testimony

In an op-ed published in the 20 July 2007 edition of Nepali Times, Nischal Nath Pandey points out how Nepali embassies abroad were poorly equipped and staffed, and budget was scarce to attend to labour matters.  

In 31 October 2008, reporter Dewan Rai told the story of Kopila Rai who suffered abuse as a caregiver in Israel. She asks, “We only talk about the government benefits from the money that migrant workers send home, but at what cost?”

In another report in 2009, Rai points out that the ban on domestic workers has not improved the situation of women workers abroad. Contrary to the more common India route to bypass the ban, he writes about Sabina who submitted fake documents saying she will be working in a hotel so she could fly out.   

In an interview with Nepali Times in the 3 December 2010 issue, Caroline O’Reilly of the ILO is asked if there is a link between migrant workers and human trafficking. She replies, “Absolutely, especially when migrant workers don’t go through official channels, they are vulnerable to forced labour.”

An editorial in the 28 October 2011 edition of Nepali Times mentioned the story of Dechen Doma Sherpa who recorded an immigration official at Kathmandu airport asking her for a bribe even when she had the required paperwork. The editorial called for a crackdown on exploitation by immigration officials, reducing recruitment costs, and skills training to make migration more rewarding.

In an op-ed titled Womanpower in the 23 March 2012 issue of the paper, Rubeena Mahato argues that despite the ban being lifted with the passing of the Foreign Employment Act 2007, women continued to travel via illegal routes as the perception of the ban persisted. She reported that 3,200 Nepali women had been intercepted at New Delhi Airport after the Nepal government asked Indian officials to stop Nepali women going to the Gulf on visit visas.

‘Even Slaves are Treated Better’ was the title of a joint report by Sushila Budathoki and Mina Sharma in the issue of 8 June 2012 about how lifting the ban on female workers was not enough. Legalising individual contracts for domestic workers to directly arrange their employment with foreign employers put women at risk while giving recruiters a free pass to game the system, and avoid being identified or implicated in case of abuse.

The story began with four heart-wrenching stories of Nepali women who were sexually abused, and had endured physical torture at the hands of their Nepali recruiters and employers in the Gulf.

In 13 September 2013 Brikuti Rai and Sunir Pandey reported in Nepali Times about Sita, a Saudi returnee, who was robbed and raped by officials at Kathmandu airport. While Parshuram Basnet and Somnath Khanal got one year jail sentence, immigration section officers Tikaram Pokharel and Ram Prasad Koirala were acquitted.

Migration of Nepali workers overseas has been dominated by men.

Rojita Adhikary reported in the 6 June 2014 issue of Nepali Times about how women workers are doubly vulnerable because they are not just easy prey to recruiters and abusive employers, but also to sexual predators. She related the experience of Dilmaya who was a victim of domestic abuse, who left for overseas work only to land an employer in Qatar who raped her. She returned to Nepal in 2011 with a baby. She also related shocking stories of Maya in Kuwait and Hema in Saudi Arabia who were raped, abused, and returned with health issues to an unwelcoming society.

In an op-ed in the 16 October 2015 issue, Sangita Thebe-Limbu argued that provisions on mothers’ citizenship to her children in the new Constitution laid bare misogynistic and patriarchal values hiding behind nationalism. She said this put the children of trafficked women, migrant women workers and other transient women whose offspring are born outside Nepal in a disadvantaged position.

In the 2 September 2016 issue, Om Astha Rai reported on how trafficking rings that sold uneducated and poor Nepali girls into Indian brothels, had moved on to the Gulf and even East African countries. The 2015 earthquake made girls more vulnerable to trafficking because they lost homes and parents.  

In a report titled ‘Never Heard from Again’ in the 27 January 2017 issue, Rai reported on missing Nepali migrants who disappeared abroad, mostly women who are trafficked to the Gulf via India to work as housemaids. He interviewed relatives of women like Parbati Karki who disappeared in Saudi Arabia, and Sita Rai who was travelling to Kuwait via India.  

Bishnu Rai holds photos of his wife, a mother of four, who went to Kuwait to work as a housemaid, but was nevere heard from again. Photo: OM ASTHA RAI

In 27 April 2018, I reported from Lebanon on Nepali domestic workers who were desperate to come home to visit family. They were afraid the ban on female household workers would mean they would not be able to return to their jobs. We got insights from Lebanese employers who described their relationship with their Nepali employees who after years, had become like family.

In 2019, Nepali Times reported on the government decision to allow current domestic workers abroad to visit family members and return to their jobs, a welcome move as it was right before Dasain.

In the 16 September 2020 issue of this paper, Marty Logan and I reported on Lilamaya Dhimal, a Nepali woman who was rescued from Saudi Arabia after 12 years of abuse by her employer. It was a combination of luck and proactive embassy support that rescued her from an employer she described as a “monster”.

It was also a year when the pandemic revealed pre-existing fault lines of a ‘protection’-oriented migration policy as women, especially those who had bypassed the ban, were disproportionately impacted while abroad and during repatriation.

It is 2021. The year began with a controversial proposal by the Immigration Department to required women below 40 to have written permission from male members of the family and ward officials before she can travel. News of the proposal sparked outrage, and street protests. In my report on the issue in the 11 February edition of Nepali Times I traced the history of restrictive immigration policies and reported on the protests by frustrated Nepalis resisting such patriarchal laws.

In the story, women reported feeling harassed by the Immigration Officials with or without the ban or the restrictions, just like it was reported in the very first edition of this paper in 21 years ago.

We are back to square one. Or perhaps we never left.

To be sure, the stories of abuse have also persisted and trafficking under the guise of foreign employment is rampant. It is necessary to strengthen anti-trafficking laws, including amendment to laws as per the Palermo Protocol that Nepal ratified last year.

But it is also important to allow safe employment opportunities for women via legal channels. The causes of poverty and desperation run deep, and the restrictive rules, even if well-intentioned, are counterproductive because they have only made the roles of agents and their services more relevant. In many cases where the woman is not abused during the journey, or lands a good employer, the agent is viewed as a hero, a facilitator, and not a criminal.

Even as the government proposed restrictions on visit visas for women flying to the Gulf and African countries, came news of 26 young women languishing in jails in Sri Lanka. They were headed to the Gulf via India. Recruiting agents are creative and stay one step ahead of new rules, finding increasingly circuitous routes. Since Nepali women who travelled overland to India were stopped from flying from New Delhi and Mumbai to the Gulf, they started taking them to Colombo.

The impact of the pandemic on Nepali families, and the rising demand in the care economy abroad, means greater push factors. Interceptions viewed as a success by the government are often seen as just ‘bad luck’ by migrants. This small selection of Nepali Times reports from the past 20 years shows that there needs to be an honest evaluation of the unintended, but anticipated, consequences of policies restricting travel for women.  

On International Women’s Day on 8 March, there will be many references to women holding up half the sky. However, rules that clip the wings of women have thwarted a more vibrant discourse on unleashing the full potential of Nepali women in nation building.

How can we deliberate on labour agreements, skills training, stronger worker provisions, better financed and staffed Nepali embassies, and rewarding alternates at home and abroad, when the fundamental right to movement sucks up all the attention?

Upasana Khadka writes this column Labour Mobility every month in Nepali Times analysing trends affecting Nepal’s workers abroad. The selected content in this article can be accessed through the site search function on https://www.nepalitimes.com/.

Seven little piggies

Sneha Shrestha and Piggles. All photos: MONIKA DEUPALA

On balmy late-winter morning, Mr Piggles saunters out of the sty he shares with six others. His dark hair glistens in the sun as he makes his way out to greet a woman in green trousers and a mock neck sweater. Behind him, Whitey, Wilbur, Brownie, Blacky, Sneha and Karlot follow suit.

“Piggles,” shouts Sneha Shrestha as she holds out a head of cauliflower. Mr Piggles grunts and squeals in joy as he munches on the greens. Around the two, Maya didi and other staff members of Sneha’s Care feed the others who vie with each other for attention from the humans, and the best of the veggies. Two of the dogs decide to join in on the chaos as packets of biscuits are opened.

Once the treats run out, Piggles leans against Shrestha’s green trousers, pushing her to the ground asking for belly rubs. Shrestha indulges him fondly. The others run around looking for more food.

“This is all they do here,” says Shrestha. “They eat, they roll around in the grass and sometimes cause mayhem overturning their water buckets.”

It has been three years since seven little pigs came to live at Sneha’s Care. Mr Piggles, the oldest of the lot, was three years old when Shrestha and the team rescued him from a slaughter house in Kailali. The team had gone to the district to build shelters for cows when they came across Piggles.

“He was living out in the open, chained to a pole without a roof over his head,” says Shrestha. “Half his body was covered in mud. At the time, there wasn’t much we could do.” Shrestha returned to Kathmandu while a few of her team members stayed back to finish building the shelters.

Later, Shrestha received a call from a team member saying the pig was going to be slaughtered for Holi. She hurried to Kailali to rescue him. She paid double the market price, paying nearly Rs50,000 to bring him to Kathmandu. “He was extremely overweight because he had been bred for meat,” remembers Shrestha. “He could hardly walk.”

Today, Piggles has a clean place to stay and is a mini celebrity who frequently features on the organisation’s social media platforms. He has lost weight, and spends his days playing around with Whitey, Wilbur, Brownie, Blacky, Sneha and Karlot, who were also rescued from a nearby pig farm when they were just a few months old.

“We could hear the pigs crying when they were being taken to slaughter,” says Shrestha. “They were used for breeding and they would often castrate them without anesthesia. The condition was pretty inhumane.”

She convinced the owner to shut down the farm and paid for the remaining piglets. “That is how they came to live at the shelter,” Shrestha says, “although animals like them are brought up for commercial purposes, they deserve to be treated with humanity when they are alive.”

For the past three years, the seven pigs start their day basking in the sun. They roam around the facility, eat, play with each other and sleep when they want. They are given a bath every day and Maya didi oils them once a day to ensure their skin is not too dry. Their meals include pig feed, veggies and fruits.

“They all love to eat, especially Piggles. He loves belly rubs and sometimes seems to forget that he is a big guy,” says Shrestha, who has been tackled to the ground more than once by the enthusiastic pig. “People don’t think about it but each one of them has its own personality.”

Karlot whose front paw was injured shortly after birth loves to sleep and is the laziest of the bunch. Even when the others are fighting over food, he just lays there.

“Blackie and Brownie are the two clever ones,” says Shrestha. “Blackie more than Brownie,” chimes in Maya didi, who is cleaning up the water and feed that the pigs have toppled over. As if to prove a point, Blackie rummages through a visitor’s bag, finds an apple and proceeds to munch on it happily.

“They have a very strong sense of smell and are one of the most intelligent animals even more so than dogs,” says Shrestha, an activist for animal welfare and nature conservation.

For now, there are neither plans to give the pigs up for adoption nor inquiries from people to adopt them. People have however laughed at the team for rescuing the pigs, and some have even inquired if they were for sale. “This is expected, as in Nepal we don’t really think of pigs as pets,” she says.

But if any animal lover comes forward to take them home, the team is ready to consider adoption. Says Shrestha: “But we will follow up every week to see where they are being kept and how they are doing. They deserve to be treated with love.”

Buddha Air gets state-of-the-art flight tracking system

As Nepal’s largest domestic airline with 14 planes in its fleet, Buddha Air needs to monitor flights, and it is now doing that with its Flight Operation Quality Assurance (FOQA).

The system allows the carrier’s operations department in Kathmanduto analyse aircraft performance fromt he moment it starts its engines to the moment it reaches its destination and switches off. 

The airline is now flying9 ATR-72s, 3 ATR-42s and 2 Beechcraft 1900D aircraft to 12 destinations from Kathmandu and Pokhara. The airline just added an ATR-72 and willbe inducting another one in July.

Buddha Air’s Corporate Safety Department send coded information to the main hangar in Kathmandu with details of the flights such as altitude, speed, ground spacing and so on. The department then monitors the aircraft performance throughout its flight as well as crew performance in real time. 

For each aircraft, the information is outsourced to be decoded by a French company, SAGEM Cassiopee which analyses the parameters and sends it back to Buddha Air within 24 hours. Through this, the company is able to read the data and performance of each flight by decoding a series of numbers and parameters. 

To make things easier, the data are set to a website accessible only to the Flight Data Monitoring Division and the cockpit crew who can check their own performance for each flight. The website’s clear identification and summarisation of the data makes it easier to read. 

With the help of modern technology, Flight Monitoring has become much easier with Google Earth coming in handy to visually map the flights. Now each flight can be monitored closely. 

While the results of the Flight Data Monitoring is available to all, details such as the pilot’s identities are kept confidential while other information such as statistics, trends, incident investigation and aircraft snags are analysed so that they can be corrected.

A flight is very sensitive to all internal and external conditions that define its performance. A flight will consist of thousands of data representing the aircraft’s flight. This means that at times when the aircraft’s engine is on but is stuck at the traffic for some reason, the recorder will still be recording, so the amount of data that a flight records depends on the time that the engine is running rather than the distance it has flown.   

The flight monitoring not only helps in retrieving data to analyse how the flight went but it also helps to analyse human factors as well. Buddha Air can understand how well the pilots are performing through this monitoring system. 

Based on the Crew Trend Analysis, customised trainings will be made available for the crew to enhance their skill set.

IATA says that Flight Data Analysis is mandatory for airplanes over 27 tons which includes Buddha Air’s ATR 42-320 and ATR 72-500 but to ensure extra safety and precaution, they also analyze the smaller Beechcraft 1900D’s flight data just to be sure nothing is missed out. 

Flight Data Analysis is a necessary tool for a good reason. It’s like screening the aircraft from the inside and outside. A pilot can sense the aircraft’s workings from the inside and an engineer screens the aircraft from the outside. 

Nepalis leaving Hong Kong for UK

Hong Kong Island at Sunset. All Photos: ALISTAIR TAN

Over the next five years, more than 300,000 Hong Kongers are expected to emigrate to the UK according to the British Home Office. But only a few of those leaving will be from the city’s 25,000 strong Nepali community.

Hong Kong is an appealing destination for Nepalis wanting to emigrate further abroad because the country’s association with the British Gurkha garrison here affords them better opportunities and privileges than other foreign workers in Hong Kong.

Thousands of British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders from Hong Kong have left for the UK fearing Chinese crackdowns, however most Nepalis are not leaving for that reason. Many families of ex-Gurkhas were already moving on to Britain even before the crackdowns, while others were already thinking of leaving to join family members.  

The majority of Nepalis who came to Hong Kong were Gurkhas stationed here when the territory was still a British colony. After the handover in 1997, a law made Gurkhas and their families eligible for permanent residency. The majority of Nepalis in the city are the children and grandchildren of these servicemen from Nepal.

Temple Street during the day

“Today, Nepalis are an integral part of Hong Kong,” says Uttar Man Tigela Limbu, a solicitor in the UK and who previously lived in Hong Kong for 20 years. “The majority are permanent residents and they enjoy the same rights as any other Hong Kongers.”

A 2013 survey by the City University of Hong Kong (CUHK) showed that 17% of Nepalis worked in the construction industry, 13% in the food and beverage sector, 12% worked as security guards and 9% worked in community, social and educational sectors. 7% were cleaners and only 5% worked in professional and executive positions, while 6% were students and 7% were home-makers.  

Uttar Man Tigela Limbu

Although Nepalis have been in Hong Kong for three generations they have not been treated equally, and the discrimination and lack of equal opportunities has been a bigger concern for many Nepalis than the recent crackdowns.

“For minorities, it is harder to learn and succeed in school,” says Indra Wanem, an immigration consultant in Hong Kong, citing the lack of support for minorities and the language barrier.

Indra Wanem

The CUHK survey showed that 63% of Nepalis had language difficulties, and 26% faced problems because of their limited choice of schools. Many felt that the Hong Kong government did not provide enough support and options for Nepali students in education.

Wanem believes only a few from the minority communities in Hong Kong end up going to university. Language difficulties also affect those who are looking for employment, as 20% of Nepalis surveyed  who had language issues said that they had difficulty at work.

This is one of the reasons why Nepalis are opting to move on to the UK, Australia or Canada. Solicitor Uttar Man Tigela Limbu says he struggled to advance his career in law in Hong Kong, which is why he moved to Britain. It also gave his children better education than the one they could have received in Hong Kong.

Corner Nepali shop on Shanghai Street

“Going to the UK has many benefits for Nepalis, there isn’t really a language barrier so it is easier to adapt. Nepali students have equal opportunities, access and chances for a higher education as well as higher paying jobs than if they were in Hong Kong,” says Limbu.

For most ex-Gurkhas, emigration is also a way to be together with other members of their families from Nepal or Hong Kong who have already got UK citizenship.

However, the National Security Law and the political situation in Hong Kong, which is driving many locals to leave is not the reason the Nepali community wants to move to the UK.  

Nepali Restaurant on Temple Street

“Most Nepalis here are aware of the political situation, but many don’t bother,” says Limbu. “They are here to work and compared to the other places, Hong Kong is still considered the best place for Nepalis to work abroad. They are treated better than in Qatar or Malaysia. And Hong Kong gives Nepalis permanent residency if they remain in the city for seven years unlike Japan and South Korea.”

Although there has been an increase in emigration from Hong Kong to the UK, the Nepali community in Hong Kong seems here to stay. “The future for Nepalis in Hong Kong is not bad,” says Limbu. “They will suffer a little because of the lack of freedom, and because of the Security Law people will now have to think twice before speaking out. But most Nepalis will remain in the city and reap economic benefits.”

पुतली बाजे and the metaphor of metamorphosis

Colin Smith first came to Nepal in 1964 as a teacher, and has been here ever since.

Admiring his Uncle Bob’s butterfly collection as a young boy in England in 1950, Colin Smith had no idea that the fluttering insects would eventually become his life. Not in the UK, but in faraway Nepal.

As a Boy Scout, Smith’s fascination for butterflies grew as his uncle taught him about the metamorphosis in the life cycle of these fascinating insects.

Before long, Smith was collecting butterflies himself, while also preparing to enroll at the Imperial College in South Kensington. In 1964, Smith came to Nepal as a teacher for United Mission Nepal (UMN).

“I was told that alongside teaching, I needed to have a hobby, too. I told them that I collected butterflies,” he says. He was asked to make a collection from Nepal to bring back home.

It is a sunny January morning and Smith, now 85, sits in a thin half-sleeved shirt in his garden in Pokhara. He has lived in Nepal for 55 years now, the last 25 of them with Min Bahadur Pariyar’s family in Lamagaun near Pokhara.

The small house in Lamagaun near Pokhara in which Colin Smith has been living with his Nepali family for the past 25 years.

Smith taught Math and English around schools in Pokhara and Kathmandu, which is when he met Dorothy Merow, who taught at Pokhara’s Prithivi Narayan Campus and had started a small natural history museum there. She persuaded him to collect butterflies for the museum.

He also started collecting and photographing rare butterflies from all over Nepal for Tribhuvan University, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, and the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara.

But then a new reality set in. “It was one thing to collect butterflies as a hobby, but it was another thing entirely to do it every day,” says Smith, who was travelling all the time from Dharan and Ilam in the east, to Gorkha and Sukhlaphanta in the west.

“No one knows why, but Godavari is the best place to find butterflies in Nepal, and why more than half the species in Nepal are found here,” says Smith, recalling his days with friend and fellow butterfly expert Mahendra Limbu exploring the biodiversity-rich mountain south of Kathmandu.  

Nepal is one of the best places in the world for butterfly watchers. Of the 17,500 or so species of butterflies in the world, 660 are found in Nepal, and 20 of them are on the endangered list. There is great potential if Nepal marketed expeditions in the peak butterfly watching seasons in March–June and August–October. Smith believes it is important not just to show visitors Nepal’s fabulous diversity of butterflies, but also detailed information about each species.

During this time, Smith began writing articles on butterflies for academic journals, which led to his first attempt at making a comprehensive checklist of butterflies in Nepal. He would go on to write four more books about butterflies and moths which are now used as school textbooks. 

In the early 2000s, Smith began working mostly on moths, collecting for Kathmandu University. “I used to travel around with a fluorescent bulb in a white sheet to collect dead specimens in the evenings,” says Smith, who has come to be known as पुतली बाजे, as he ages into his hobby.Butterfly Grandad” is also what Uncle Bob’s own grandchildren call him back in  England, so it was a fitting Nepali nickname for Colin.

Min Bahadur and his friend Surendra Pariyar met Smith as young boys during a camping trip to Rupa Lake. They showed an interest in collecting butterflies and in the process, formed a deep bond.

“He taught me everything there is to know about butterflies,” Surendra says. He and Min Bahadur sit beside Smith as the sun illuminates the south face of Machapuchre. The butterfly collection is now at the International Mountain Museum, and Smith’s photographs are postcards.

The printed postcards do not sell anymore because of the collapse of tourism and the demise of the postal service, so Smith hands them out to children in his butterfly walks.

Colin Smith’s photographs of butterflies do not sell much anymore, so he gives them away to children during his walks.

In 2019, Smith was granted honorary citizenship of Nepal. “There wasn’t anything for me to do in England, while there was something for me to do here,” he says as he takes out his citizenship certificate from inside a worn white bag.

Although he had always wanted to be a Nepali citizen, being one took him a long time. He had applied as far back as 1995, but it was only years later, after Surendra Pariyar pulled in all possible efforts, that the Nepal government finally responded to the request.

Colin Smith proudly shows his Nepali citizenship certificate that he got after years of trying.

“The man wants to live out his life here, be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the Seti, so he deserves to be a Nepali,” says Surendra.

The last time Smith left Nepal was to go to England in 2006. His brother lives in New Zealand and he hopes he could go there once to visit, but admits that at his age, travelling is difficult.

Smith finishes up his toast and an omelette, which Min Bahadur’s daughter brings him. He places leftover scraps of eggs down on the floor and says, “This is for the बिरालो. 

Then Putali Baje stands up, the white bag clutched in his hands, and slowly makes his way back inside his little green house.

Landlocked Nepalis sail the seven seas

Thousands of Nepalis like Dipendra Thapa make their livelihood at sea because of better pay, room for recreation, and the opportunity to travel the world.

saroj KC’s first memory as a crew member in a cruise liner was being awestruck at the sight of a humongous multi-level ship docked in the Guangzou port in China. 

The mammoth 17-decked ship, with an accommodation for 7,000 people, was going to be his home for the next nine months as he worked in the galley.

Once on board, he recalls that the scale inside did not match what he saw outside. The corridors in the crew area, set aside for crewmen, were narrow and maze-like while the identical worker cabins were tiny. He felt claustrophobic and lost, with no sense of direction to navigate his way around the vessel.

By 2020, his memory on the ship was a stark contrast to his first, as he was stuck in a passenger-less ship for four and a half months, docked in a port in Malaysia. With no passengers on board, crew members were given access to the whole ship and he enjoyed the privileges previously reserved for guests–larger rooms with balconies, relaxed hours, amenities and good company.

As he waited to return home, he found comfort in having access to free wifi. “Internet usually is expensive, we have to pay around 14 Singapore dollars for 1 GB, so we are cautious about what we stream. But during the lockdown, we were provided free wifi which was great as we got to keep in constant touch with our families and stream movies during the lull hours,” KC recalls.

Saroj KC spent four and a half months in a passenger-less ship in a port in Malaysia.

The sea, the sea

The $150 billion global cruise industry was severely impacted by Covid-19. Prior to the pandemic, passenger volume in 2020 was estimated to grow to 32 million, compared to 26.7 million in 2017 and 17.8 million in 2009. A 2018 report shows that the industry created 1,177,000 jobs and catered to 28.5 million passengers.

KC is one of the thousands of Nepalis who make their livelihood at sea, alongside Filipinos, Indians and Indonesians, who dominate the industry. Now in Kathmandu, he is waiting for things to normalise so he can resume his job.

Compared to other land-based overseas jobs, KC found the work arrangement at his sea job unique and attractive. Each contract lasts between 7-9 months, after which they get to come home for a long vacation of around 45 days. 

“But while you are on the job, the work is highly demanding. There are no weekly days off and the pressure can be quite overwhelming,” he says.

Cruise companies have a notorious reputation for registering companies in countries like Panama and Liberia under a practice called ‘flag of convenience’ which reduced operating costs, allow for tax evasion, more lax labour and environmental standards.

But migrants we spoke to compared employment terms relative to existing options at home or in other land-based jobs.

The pay is comparatively better in the industry, while the crew members’ entertainment is prioritised via game rooms, and crew bars and the food and living costs are taken care of. And there is the travel opportunity.

“In 9 months, I was able to see over 40 countries including France and Italy,” says Bijaya Ranjit, who was always fascinated by Fewa Lake in Pokhara, the largest body of water she saw while growing up. “It is exciting and you don’t want to miss a thing because who knows whether you will ever get to see these places again?”

Bijaya Ranjit had not seen a body of water larger than Fewa Lake before starting her job on cruise ships.
Bijaya Ranjit travelled to 40 countries in 9 months.

She says when the cruise starts docking in the same ports repeatedly, however, the fascination with touristic sites dissipates.

Currently unsure when she can resume her work at sea, Ranjit is hopeful for a 2022 revival. This time around, she is hoping her seafaring adventures will take her to places like Australia and Canada where she has not yet been.

The high-profile outbreak on cruise vessels including the Diamond Princess cruiseship with 700 positive cases on board and 13 deaths cost the industry its reputation. A year later, major cruise companies are again reporting strong booking for the second half of 2021. This bodes well for Nepali seafarers like Bijaya Ranjit who is anxiously waiting to resume her job.

“The ship offers many opportunities for personal growth if we are able to seize them,” she says. “I focused on soft skills like language training. To survive the monotony and the grind, you have to be able to make light of the dreary days at sea and to find solace in the company of your on-deck peers who become like family.”

Dipendra Thapa has been working in the cruise line since 2006, and has visited 70 cities in the last 14 years. His previous jobs at five star restaurants in Nepal prepared him well for his stint on the cruise. When Covid-19 hit, his ship made its way back to Italy, the primary port, where he was stranded for a few months.

“There is a world of its own inside the ship and we made use of it as we waited to go home,” he recalls. But once the cases started rising in Italy, crew members were isolated in single passenger cabins in the ship.

“Of course we were nervous and uncertain but my employer took the best care of us given the situation,” says Thapa, who was  repatriated via Qatar after a month of being isolated in single rooms with support from the Nepali mission in Geneva. In addition to the ticket costs, the quarantine costs in Kathmandu were also covered by the employer.

He is grateful to his employer, who has been in touch with him to enquire about the ongoing situation, but equally grateful to the guests on the ship who have given him a different take on life.

“I have spoken to guests for whom a cruise was a dream for which they saved for many years. Not all our guests are rich. It is a luxury and a dream for many,” he says

He is hopeful that things will normalise soon, even though there is much uncertainty about what awaits.  “And just because we are landlocked does not mean we shouldn’t exploit sea-based opportunities,” he says.

Anchored to their jobs

Of the 853 recruiters in Nepal, only two specialise in seafarer deployment, while a few others handle both land and sea-based workers.  

Bhakta Bahadur Payangu at Good Alliance Overseas, has recruited  over 2,000 seafarers in the last decade, and estimates  around 7,000 Nepali workers are working in the maritime industry.

Payangu’s challenges as a recruiter is to ensure the seafarers sector is recognised by the government before he can put Nepalis in the cruise companies’ radar since it requires more specific attention.  

In destination countries, visa rules to seafarers are very flexible as the governments realise that they are only arriving for transit to use the port, so a large majority of the countries allow visas on arrival. But Nepal’s rules for obtaining the mandatory labour permit requires visas as a prerequisite.

“Since years, we have tried to convince the government to accept ‘okay-to-board’ letters in lieu of visas for seafarers. They have become more flexible in the last few years,” says Payangu.

A specific directive that addresses the peculiarities of this sector covering orientation, training and labour approval process have been pointed out by recruiters. Penetrating this market is equally challenging as Nepal already is at a disadvantage given its landlocked status and geographical constraints.

“Workers do not leave the contracts once they get the job so opportunities for new workers can be limited. Many workers stay until they retire because there isn’t really a reason to leave,” he explains. Nepal has not been able to leverage the available opportunities.

Nepali workers don’t have basic English language skills. There are more options for security guards, housekeeping and food and beverage if there were more skilled Nepalis, says Payangu.

“We also need the administrative process to be made simpler. Employers don’t have a reason to tolerate the delays in worker deployment from Nepal due to administrative hassles if they can get a Filipino within days,” says Payangu.

“As a recruiter, I can sleep better when I can send maritime workers because cases of abuse, non-payment of wages, contract infringement, is very low,” he says.

Those who have worked at sea also emphasise the skills factor, highlighting especially the need for English language proficiency.

“There are a lot of opportunities but my advice to incoming Nepalis is to have a longer time horizon. They may manage to get in without basic skills like English language with the help of intermediaries and by paying high recruitment costs, but this will work against them once they are on the ship.” says Dipendra Thapa.

There is also the issue of obtaining seaman’s logbook, which is a mandatory requirement that records seafaring experiences. Nepalis currently have to obtain it from India. In 2018, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali announced that seamen’s logbook would be issued in Nepal itself. But since it has not materialised, workers are compelled to obtain it from the Indian government, meaning Nepal is also losing out on the revenue.

Training institutes are cropping up in Nepal that provide the mandatory certification required prior to obtaining the seaman’s logbook. The 14 day course covers fire-fighting, first aid, personal survival skills, personal safety and social responsibility and security training for seafarers and designated security duties.

The completion of the course comes with the Standard Training Certification, followed by logbooks to be obtained from India. Uptake, however, is still low, says Pawan Thapa, training director at Universal Maritime Institute.

Kamal Subedee, an alumni of the institute says that the training is helpful for those who are unfamiliar with the environment onboard ocean-going ships. 

“There is not much time to adjust to the completely unfamiliar context and the ship-lingo, even for someone like me who had previously worked for a decade in the UAE in the hotel line,” he says. “The training period helps me, because the minute you embark it is go-time. Being at sea also keeps you alert as you are unsure about what could happen because you are always moving in the middle of nowhere. Safety skills under your belt do make you feel a little more confident and assured.”

Kamal Subedi worked in hospitality for a decade before training to become a maritime worker.
Kamal Subedi with his Nepali passport and his seaman’s passport.

Life at sea

Sunil Khadka started as a busboy in a ship and moved up the ladder to become a supervisor. He is hopeful that Nepalis, who are a minority in the industry, performing well in their designated jobs can influence employer perceptions leading to increase in hiring.

There have been cases where Nepalis have jumped off ships disappearing into different countries, denting the general reputation. “We tend to underestimate how high costs of living are and the challenges of being in a foreign country without the right paperwork,” he says.

Living on a ship is also lucrative because there are few expenses. An entry level person like a busboy can easily save up to Rs100,000 every month, while visiting family after every few months on employers’ costs. This is much better than Nepalis with land-based jobs in Malaysia or the Gulf.

Sunil Khadka started as a busboy in a ship and moved up to become supervisor.

“What you earn, you keep, unless you want to spend on travels.  And all this while you get to see the world,” Khadka smiles, as he recounts serving Hollywood star Johnny Depp, attending a live Bon Jovi concert and watching WWE fights on deck, “Even the richest among us would not be able to enjoy all this, would they?”

The downside of being on the ship for many is that the internet is not free. During emergencies, this can be a problem. For Khadka, it was three days after his father had passed away that he learned about it.

“The short contracts also means once you return from vacation, you may get placed in any ship. It takes time to build rapport, to understand the dynamics in the ship and the team around you so having to redo that all over again every time can be a bit cumbersome,” he explains.

Khadka intends to do this job as long he can, after which he wants to leverage his experience to help produce well-trained seamen in Nepal, “I am well qualified to be able to do that, but the environment in Nepal should allow it.”

Sunil Khadka meeting Johnny Depp on one of his work trips.

To produce a qualified seaman, Nepal needs institutions providing complementary roles including training and recruiters specialised in maritime jobs. For now, he is waiting until his employer gets a green signal on Covid-19 from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume operations.

The voices of the small volume of seafarers stranded last year after the Covid-19 outbreak got lost during the repatriation mess. While they were taken care of by the employers, the majority, however, were not paid wages during the time they were stranded in quarantine.

Scattered across the globe, they have diverse experiences of homecoming, given the variation in the lockdown rules, docking permissions, travel restrictions, docking space and disembarkment rules.

Jayaram Bhandari, for example, was in Miami at the onset of the pandemic. On the ship that brought him home, he first spent 12 days in Italy, then the ship traveled to Sri Lanka to drop off workers from there, and then to India. But given the border restrictions and the suspension of flights, the ship had to be again taken to the Philippines for the 82 Nepalis to be flown home via the government’s repatriation flights. 

Deepak GC was in the UAE when he interviewed for a seafarer job as a chef. He returned to Nepal, trained and had a joining date of 12 March, 2020 in South Africa. His peers whose home port was in Europe had their flights canceled and Deepak felt lucky to fly to South Africa, unbeknownst to him that the next few months were going to be some of the worst months in his life.

Dipendra Thapa has been working in the cruise line since 2006

“It was my first week on the job when we were informed that the cruise was being stopped,” he says. “Of the five Nepalis on board, two had a return flight for the 20th and 3 of us for the 21st. They made it just in time, whereas the three of us didn’t because the lockdown in Nepal had begun. What a difference one day can make.”

After getting paid for eight days of work, he spent the next six months in Durban, his home port. They started with 400 crewmembers from over 60 countries. 3 hotels and 6 months later, the three Nepalis were the only nationalities left as all other governments repatriated their citizens.

Deepak GC worked at his new job for 8 days before being stuck at the port in Durban for the next 6 months.

“This is when we realised there is no one for us. Earlier, it was easy to find consolation that we were not the only ones and we were all in this together but by the end when it was just the Nepalis left,” he says.

It is only on 12 September, after six months, that they finally got to come home. Deepak recalls meeting his brother and sister-in-law in the holding center in Surkhet and tears rolling down his cheeks. “I wasn’t sure if it was because I was tired, relieved…perhaps it was a mixture of all those emotions.”

Deepak GC passes time while waiting to return home.

By the end of the five month wait, he ended up losing money given the recuritment costs he was not about to recoup and the months of unemployment.  When Nepali Times met him last week, he had just completed his mandatory pre-departure orientation training required to obtain labour approval. “I am going back to the UAE and rejoining my old employer as I cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Not for everyone

But there are those like Sangam Gopali who speak highly of the opportunity, especially the travel-and-work deal. “On the ship itself, I got an opportunity to cross-train to move to retail from the kitchen, and such flexibility is very much needed when you are in that high-pressure, highly-isolated environment. I am now waiting for opportunities to open up in other companies so I can travel to the Caribbean and Europe, I have seen enough of Asia,” he says.

Gopali recalls the first three months of his time at sea being difficult, especially adapting to sea-sickness and a weird sensation of being in constant motion. Over time, he got used to it, even the rough seas. 

“Being in the vessel teaches you lessons,” he says. “To be able to deal with loneliness, to better understand people around you, and to work hard every day and to maintain discipline. This job is not for the feeble hearted.”

Unlike many others who stayed, Rabi Raj Ranjit returned after the first nine months even though the earnings were attractive. He felt worn out.

“The grind turns you into a machine, without guaranteeing a secure future as there are no opportunities for citizenship, you continuously renew your contract every year,” he says.

Ranjit says that no matter how beautiful the places he visited were, he felt like he could never become a part of it. “You are a mere spectator with a few hours to spare to make mechanical visits while worrying about making it back on time for your duty, rushing through the must-go places without taking in the culture and the surroundings.”

He did not enjoy his tiny windowless cabin, or the same trips. In a way, you were always on the move but never really going anywhere, just moving in circles and reaching the same ports every few days.

“I remember being woken up to the sound of the drawers of my closet opening and closing in the night when the sea was rough. The crew cabins are under sea-level, and the waves were loud at night.”

Ranjit missed his motorcycle and being on the road and so returned for good after his first contract was over.  On the positive side of the job, he says that one was always on the move. Even so, the sea was not for him.