In the town of Kasara outside Chitwan National Park, the paddy was being harvested last week. The contract labourers had come across the Nepal-India border at Thori, and were busy manually slicing rice stalks with their sickles. The Nepali farmers who had hired them could afford to do so because their three sons were all working in Japan and sending money home.
Across the country, including Kathmandu and on trek routes, there are skilled and semi-skilled workers from northern India and Bangladesh doing the same work that Nepalis have gone abroad to do. In some cases, in districts along the 2015 earthquake zone, Indian workers earn as much as Nepali carpenters and masons earn in Qatar.
In jewelry shops that line Kathmandu’s New Road, very little of the work is done by the local Newar owners, most of it has been passed on to hired Indians. Every time Nepalis get a haircut, there is a fair chance they are sending money to India as out-flowing remittance.
Last week during Tihar, like all recent Tihars, the demand for marigold boomed, but there is no one to pluck them and make garlands to sell in the cities. So, we imported the garlands from India instead. In the past ten years Nepal received nearly $40 billion in remittances from its workers abroad. But Nepal is also the sixth largest source of remittance for India, from its workers in Nepal.
With infrastructure reaching saturation, most Gulf countries will now require managers, and service sector workers, and fewer menial workers. Korean language institutions are in high demand because many Nepali workers believe that this is a market that will them to move up the social ladder, and hard work really pays. USA and Australia still draw the young who are strong academically and have families willing to pay for their education.
Qatar is asking the Nepal Police to help secure its venues during the upcoming World Cup in 2022. Malaysia wants Nepali workers, and is willing to cover all fees associated with them under a new G2G deal. The USA diversity visa lottery is attracting hundreds of thousands of Nepali applicants.
Soon, there may be more Nepalis working outside Nepal than in Nepal. Terrace farms are lying fallow, or are being farmed by contract labourers from India. There is really no other way but for Nepali farms to mechanise production and consolidate fragmented family plots.
There used to be a time when Nepalis performed funeral rites for relatives if they did not come home for the paddy planting season. We may need to revive this tradition to get young Nepalis to come home during Dasain and stay home till the harvest is stored for the winter.
One of the reasons why many Nepalis do not face extreme poverty in difficult economic times is because they have the option to go back to subsistence farming. This has been the insurance policy during the Indian Blockade, and the demonetisation of the INR which hit poor Nepali workers hardest by destroying their savings.
Nepal’s main imports include machinery, fossil fuel and raw materials for processed goods for export. No one keeps count of how much money goes out in haircuts, farm contract labourers, and construction workers from India in hydropower, and rebuilding of earthquake-damaged houses. Many CEOs and senior managers in Kathmandu are foreigners, probably because there are no Nepalis left who can do the job.
Nepalis are said to work hard, but only when they are outside Nepal. At home, manual work is regarded as shameful. The jagir culture thrives because salaried government jobs demand little, but assure a pension for life. You see young men playing cards or carom but not helping in the farm. Success in Nepal means not having to work.
But things are changing. Nepali youth today run many businesses that require manual labor and good academic qualifications. From vegetable farming to animation studios, from raising rainbow trout to meat processing, Nepalis are launching businesses closer to home.
Nepal is now exporting more IT products than money earned from tourism. Families and communities need to respect those who refuse to go abroad and seek work within Nepal. We are proud people, sometimes too proud to work and get our hands dirty. We need more of us to do manual work and tell the world proudly of what we do.
Upward mobility in Nepal should not mean not having to do any work.
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc