International Organization of Migration (IOM)’s 2019 report estimates that there are between 3-4 million Nepalis live and working in India at any given time. There are said to be up to 700,000 Indian workers in Nepal.
Migration researcher Ganesh Gurung says that India-Nepal border is open and the movement of workers between the two countries is free, which makes it difficult to find exact numbers.
One-way ticket home for overseas Nepali workers, Upasana Khadka
“We have a lot of seasonal migrant workers crossing the Indo-Nepal border,” he explains, “many Nepalis from the Tarai go to Haryana and Punjab during harvest seasons, and a lot of Indian workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh come to Nepal, too.”
Whatever the numbers, most Nepali workers in India and Indians in Nepal are unregistered and unprotected, working in the unorganised sector, often under unsafe working conditions, they remain vulnerable to injuries, abuses and exploitation.
The Nepali Jana-Samparka Samiti and Maiti India provide support to vulnerable Nepali men, women and children across India. Its chair Balkrishna Pandey migrated to India when he was 17, and has first-hand experience of the hardships.
“For the past 30 years we have been raising the issue of poor migrant workers from Nepal needing some kind of registration, protection and safety net in India,” he told us over the phone. “Many Prime Ministers have come and gone in Kathmandu. When they came to India, the leaders assure migrant workers, but once they get to power in Kathmandu, they forget about the Nepalis here.”
Pandey estimates that in the past four months of the lockdown, some 600,000 Nepali migrants have come back from India, facing hardships all the way.
Walking 3 days to get home, Sanjay Mishra
Suman Ghimire at Nepal’s Ministry of Labor Employment and Social Security says ensuring safe migration to Nepali migrant workers in India is on the government’s radar, and after the lockdown local governments have started registering the arrivals from India in the past months.
“This data collection is an important first step in protecting Nepali migrant workers in India,” he says, “we need to do much more and we are serious about that.”
After Narendra Modi came to power in India in 2014, the two governments have made attempts to streamline labour movement in both directions. It was also discussed in the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which was formed in 2016 to review past bilateral treaties including the India-Nepal Peace and Freindship Treaty of 1950.
After many meetings, the EPG completed its final report two years ago, but it has yet to be accepted by the two governments. Experts say the EPG report could provide the necessary foundation to better regulate and protect migration of workers between the two countries.
Ganesh Gurung welcomes the Supreme Court order, and adds: “It’s the poorest of the poor who have been crossing the Indo-Nepal border for seasonal work or employment. They are often at risk. They must be better protected.”
However a diplomat at the Nepal Embassy in New Delhi says the two governments must be cautious about regulating the border. The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “If we start issuing foreign employment permits to our workers who have been freely crossing the border for centuries, Indo-Nepal ties would be affected.”
The India-Nepal-China geopolitical tri-junction, Kunda Dixit
India and China sacrifice Nepal, From the Nepali Press