15-21 May 2015 #758

Migrants inbound

Many Nepalis working overseas are returning to help rebuild lives and homes.
Om Astha Rai

When he went to work in Malaysia four months ago, Ram Hari Katwal had everything most Nepali men dream of: a house, a wife and two little children.

Today, he has lost almost everything. His wife Hima and one-year-old son Bikram are dead, his house is gone. But his five-year-old Biraj survived.

AFTERSHOCK: Biraj Katwal now lives with his father who returned from Malaysia after his wife and younger son were killed in the earthquake, and his home in Melamchi destroyed. Photo: Om Astha Rai

"I could not see my wife and son before they were cremated," said Katwal with a faraway look. "I wanted to return home immediately but it took me two weeks to get permission from my company."

Katwal, 26, is now with his son in a temporary shelter made of timber and tin he salvaged from the ruins of his house in Melamchi of Sindhupalchok. He has decided not to return to Malaysia. It was only last year that Katwal built a house with a bank loan, and he went to Malaysia to pay it off.

"I have not paid off my loan yet," he says. "And I now have to take more loans to rebuild my house, the government is never going to give us enough."

One silver lining about the fact that more than 2 million Nepalis like Katwal are working abroad means that their families can use the money they send home to rebuild their homes. Many Nepali young men also survived because they were not here when the earthquake struck.

However, the absence of able-bodied men in the villages was acutely felt in the rescue of people trapped under the rubble on the first few days after the quake struck. Now, there may be cash but there is a shortage of men for reconstruction.

In village after village, women, children and the elderly are left to fend for themselves. This week at Kathmandu airport, every flight from the gulf and Malaysia was full of migrant workers returning home.

Among them was Krishna Silwal, 40, who had planned to return at Dasain but decided to come early after the earthquake damaged his house in Salang of Dhading district.

BACK HOME: Krishna Silwal paid his own way home from Qatar, but has to rebuild his house in Dhading before he goes back in a month. Photo: Om Astha Rai

His Qatar company finally gave Silwal a 38-day leave, but he had to pay for his own roundtrip ticket. He is using his savings to rebuild the family home. “I want to finish the new house before I go back, but I don’t know if that is possible in a month,” he says.

Silwal says many Nepalis are not coming back because they can’t afford air tickets, or can’t get permission from employers. After the earthquake, some companies, mostly Malaysian, have offered Nepali migrant works tickets and leave.

Migration expert Ganesh Gurung says remittance money will make reconstruction easier. "Nepali migrant workers send home nearly Rs 1.5 billion every day and this is the only reason houses damaged by the earthquake will be rebuilt soon," he says. "Government compensation amount is too little to rebuild."

Gurung says the earthquake will change the pattern of use of remittances, and lead to a surge in the number of migrant workers. At present nearly 80 per cent of remittance income is used for household necessities. "Now, a large portion will go for house reconstruction," says Gurung.

Although Sindhupalchok is the district with the highest number of women migrant workers, none of the 14 affected districts are on the list of top districts in terms of migration. But this may now change.

Read Also:

Sindhupalchok's sorrow, Bhrikuti Rai

Life after deaths, Om Astha Rai

Aftershocks in a migrant economy, Mallika Aryal