Nepal's head of state and head of government both recently had a chance to see up close and personal the plight of Nepali workers in the Gulf. President Ram Baran Yadav was on a state visit to Qatar, while Prime Minister Bhattarai made a stopover in Doha.
The president had a long chat with the progressive and pragmatic Emir of the gas-rich sheikhdom over a lavish banquet. They talked about the potential for further Qatar-Nepal cooperation, especially in agriculture and tourism. The only reason Nepal hasn't been able to cash in on Qatari goodwill towards Nepal and take it beyond exporting "manpower", it seems, is because the various branches of government here are so feckless. Distracted by holidays and politics, they couldn't even get their act together to give the president talking points for a specific Qatari request to invest in agriculture in Nepal.
Both President Yadav and Prime Minister Bhattarai, however, met Nepalis and heard first hand that their real problem is exploitation by fellow-Nepalis. The statistics are shocking: every year, more than 200 Nepalis come home in coffins from Qatar alone, most dying due stress and heat stroke. Ten Nepalis are deported from Doha airport every day because middlemen back home have duped them with fake papers. Even those who find work earn much less than what the recruitment agencies promised. Middlemen take away as much as a worker's annual earning in commission. And when they return to Nepal, they face harassment and extortion by customs and immigration officials at Kathmandu airport. One woman recorded the conversation of an immigration official soliciting a bribe and posted it online (see p 14). No action has so far been taken against him.
This is the way we treat Nepalis who have saved this country from economic collapse. And we give a red carpet to up-market permanent migrants (euphemistically called "Non-returning Nepalis") who hold conferences in Kathmandu paid for by the state.
Eighteen per cent of Nepal's population at any given time is working abroad. They send home more than $2 billion a year, and remittances now make up one-third of Nepal's GDP. One in every four persons in Qatar today is a Nepaliómost of them are unskilled construction workers. Doha's impressive skyline is shiny with the sweat of Nepalis.
For two decades now, Nepal's national policy has been to take the easy way out and address unemployment at home by exporting manpower and, increasingly, womanpower. The 1,000 Nepali workers who pack planes flying out of Kathmandu every day represent a chronic failure of governance, failure of education and failure to generate jobs at home. A recent article from Bhojpur in this paper showed that most young men would stay back in Nepal if they could earn just Rs 6,000 more than their present income.
A ruinous war was fought to right the wrongs in society so Nepalis wouldn't have to migrate for work. The architect of that war is now the prime minister. The conflict also pushed Nepal's development back decades, and in a vicious cycle, dampened investment, destroyed jobs. The prime minister has just returned from India with a plan to jump start investment, and all we can say is that it is better late than never that Baburam Bhattarai has seen the light.
But luring investment takes time. It would be best to use the lag phase to boost earnings from our migration-based economy by:
Reducing the cost of migration for workers, simplifying procedures
Cracking down on exploitation and bribery by recruiters and immigration
Reducing the cost of official remittance transfer
Providing mandatory orientation and skills-training to workers so they can double their income
Studies have shown that Nepal can easily double its present income from remittances if these simple steps are taken. That, in turn, will buy time until Nepalis can finally work on their home soil and not have to toil in the hot sands of some distant desert.
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