Nepali Times Asian Paints
No men’s land



Women sip tea outside their homes while children play badminton and cricket on the streets of Beni. It's Democracy Day and everyone gets to enjoy the public holiday, except the men.

Up to 80 percent of them in Myagdi have gone abroad to work: the highest proportion in any district in Nepal. They are in the British or Indian armies or in Singapore or Brunei. Others are in Qatar or Malaysia.

Those who go to the Gulf send home about Rs 10,000 a month, in Japan it may be as high as Rs 50,000. If a young man decides to stay home, he may earn only Rs 5,000 a month as a bus driver or shopkeeper. The temptation and social pressure to go abroad to work is immense.

And even if they wanted to stay home, there just aren't enough jobs here in the hills of central Nepal. The conflict took its toll, and besides existing businesses closing down, infrastructure like highways and hydropower projects were scrapped or delayed. For example, if it hadn't been for the war, the highway to Jomsom would be completed by now and Beni would have benefited as a transit point.

"Our economy is fully dependent on remittances," says Surya Margani, vice-chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Beni. He says Myagdi alone gets Rs 40 million worth of money from abroad through official channels. Adding hundi and private transfers, the total may be double that.

The effect of the remittance economy can be seen everywhere. More than ten banks have sprung up since the 1990s and there are a surprising number of jewelry shops as families of migrant workers invest in gold.

A family here that receives money from abroad save up to Rs 4,000. Most of the money is invested into land to build houses or hotels, with wealthier families going on to buy land in Pokhara and Kathmandu, sometimes migrating to these cities for better prospects.

There is also a boom in schools. Men folk working abroad find the value of learning English and want their children to also be fluent, so there has been a boom in private English-language schools. In a private school here, up to 80 percent of the children in a Grade Eight class had their father working abroad.

But prolonged absences of the men in the family have also led to family dislocations. Baburam Chhantyal was in Saudi Arabia for nine years when his wife left him for another man. With two children aged six and 11, Chhantyal returned to Beni three months ago so that he could rebuild his family.

"I'm working hard so that my family can prosper, but look what has happened," he says. Chhantyal has since remarried but will be going overseas again. "I have to," he puts simply, "it will be tough, some nights I just close my eyes and imagine that I'm in Nepal."

The 39-year-old father says he will tell his children to study hard and not play so much. "I tell them that their father is going away for their future," he adds.

Most teenage boys here dream of becoming soldiers like their forefathers. "I want to join the British Army," says Yeependra Tilija, 17. His father is abroad in Saudi Arabia, and he knows how hard he has to work whatever the money. There is much more prestige in becoming a Gurkha soldier.

Yeependra has been preparing for his SLC exams,and runs every morning to keep fit so he will pass the recruitment physicals. His teacher Roshan Rana worries about him and his other pupils.

Says Rana: "I don't know if the men who have gone abroad will ever return. How will the country benefit? Who will look after Nepal?"

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)