A significant portion of Nepal’s economy consists of foreign remittances. As per the estimates, 4.5 million Nepalese are currently living abroad as migrant workers contributing to almost one-third of Nepal’s economy.
Minimal travel barricades, open borders, geographical proximity, and cultural resonances are one of the many reasons as to why it is a natural choice for most of the Nepalis to choose India as their work country. The lockdown imposed to prevent the COVID-19 spread impacted the Nepali migrant workers tremendously and hundreds of workers are currently stranded in border areas between India and Nepal.
The migrant crisis has been accelerating ever since and the conditions have worsened. The involvement of the two countries has made the situation complicated. India and Nepal used to share an amicable relationship where India was labeled as Nepal’s ‘big brother’. However, since the last 4-5 years with China’s intervention and both the countries indulging in dirty domestic politics, the feeling of brotherhood has faded away. Despite these frictions, there was a huge possibility of both the governments coordinating and cooperating to resolve the migrants’ crisis, but the Kalapani dispute emerged as a catalyst and worsened the relations between both the countries. Kalapani is a disputed territory between India and Nepal. The dispute remained unresolved and yet, in May 2020, Rajnath Singh, the Defence Minister of India inaugurated a road that connects Dharchula in Uttarakhand to the Lipulekh Pass, passing through the disputed territory. This sparked numerous protests and the bitter chord between both the countries grew even stronger. This negatively impacted the migrant workers who are still stranded in the border region while the governments of both countries have remained ignorant.
The reality is also that Nepal is not ready to bring back its migrant workers and is maybe using the Lipulekh controversy as a diversionary tactic to stall the extraction. Human Rights Watch released a statement that Nepal had abandoned its workers in the fight against COVID-19, as it denied the right to return of its citizens. The truth is that the Nepali government is facing huge challenges to keep its citizens safe. They have no solid plans on quarantine facilities, testing, or transportation to evacuate their own citizens. Further on, the country does not have enough job opportunities to hire all these migrants or support them financially, once they return. “We need preparations on a massive scale. We need quarantine facilities. We need to be prepared to send people to their towns and villages safely. What would be the mode of transportation?” said Bhattarai, the former secretary at the Labour Ministry “It needed serious homework but in the last two months we saw nothing.”
On the other hand, India does have the capability to support its citizens physically and financially. However, about 900km (559 miles) south of Darchula, approximately 1,000 Indian citizens are stuck in the Nepalese border town of Birgunj. They have not been allowed to enter India. India has started its evacuation process from UAE, Singapore, US, and many far off countries like these but the evacuation process in Nepal is ‘still in talks’. Nepal, being one of the closest and the most convenient, still has Indians stranded in the borders hints at the cold behavior both the countries are portraying towards each other at the cost of their own citizens.
Migrants are desperate to return to their homes due to the lack of money, shelter, and food. The public has taken the situation in their hands and some have been reported of swimming across the Mahakali river which acts as a natural border between India and Nepal to get back to their villages while others have been illegally entering the country by bribing the border guards. Both countries need to call it a truce, put behind their disputes for the time being, and concentrate on resolving the immediate migrant crisis. In the time of a pandemic, public welfare should be prioritized over political differences.
Vanshika Shah is a 2nd year undergraduate student at Ashoka University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a minor in International Relations