Durga Bahadur Khadka from Bardia spent five years working in a restaurant in Maharastra state, and is not sure whether he is going back. He says: “It is not about whether or not I will go, but when. I worked as a cook, made around 15,000 Indian rupees and did not have to spend on food and room.”
The Nepal government does have plans to help returnees find jobs so they can get back on their feet. Labour experts even pushed all three levels of government to urgently give jobs vacated by the 500,000 Indian workers in Nepal to Nepali returnees from India. But the rush of Nepalis returning to India in the past weeks shows that these promises are limited to paper.
In theory, there are reintegration programs, soft loans, and jobs via the Prime Minister’s Employment Program (PMEP). Even before the pandemic, the PMEP was criticised for creating just 13 days of employment for 175,909 returning migrant workers in the past fiscal year. The returnee soft loan program approved credit for less than 1% of 18,000 applicants. This year’s budget had employment generation as a central focus, but implementation has been slow and returnees do not have the luxury to wait around.
Migrants from India do not even qualify for programs targeting returnees such as the soft loan program because they have not contributed to the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund. In fact, Nepalis migrating to India for work are almost treated like internal migrants. Faced with the choice between hunger and jobs, many of the poorest are heading back across the border.
Khadka of Bardia knew local officials were collecting information on the jobless for the Prime Minister’s Employment Program, but he did not sign up because he was not sure he would get a job if he did.
“It would be working on road or irrigation construction projects for just 500 rupees a day,” he says. “The best option for me is to go back to India to the cooking job I had. But I am trying to find out more about the journey back and the situation in Maharastra so I know the risks.”