If you want a glimpse into the lives of Nepali migrant workers, fly with them. Avoid the more expensive routes, and opt for the NAC direct flight to Kuala Lumpur, or the more time-consuming route through Dhaka. What one gets is a crash course in Nepal's ethnic diversity, economic stagnation, failed politics, and the survival skills of its citizens.
As a meal was served on our way to Dhaka, I looked across to my co-passenger, who was slouched in his seat, staring blankly ahead. He saw me peel off the cover from the meal box, and get a fork out. With an eye on my tray, he cautiously did the same with his own, then smiled. "Ke garne? This is my first time."
Lakhandar Mukhia was from a small village in Saptari and was going to work "in a company". He explained how he landed the job. "I used to hang around the village doing nothing. An agent was looking for people and came to the village. My father said I should go. We paid him 70,000 last month and he organised this." I asked him if he knew where he would be working in Malaysia or which city he was flying to. He shook his head. "Someone will be there to take us." Returning to his food, he murmured, "But I am very scared?"
Mukhia was just one of the 6335 people who left to work in Malaysia between mid-October and November this year. He was understandably nervous, but if those who return are any indication, don't be surprised if that changes soon.
A few days later, at the Kuala Lumpur departure lounge, I met Mohammed Sadiq, from Kharchaiya in Saptari. Sadiq had been working in a furniture company in Malaysia for five years. He earned about 30 Ringgit a day, and worked seven days a week for twelve hours each. Sadiq managed to save between 400-500 RM every month ? approximately Rs 10,000.
Was he happy?
"Ke khushi, what happiness? I spend all my time in the factory and both my Chinese owner and Tamil supervisor are cold-hearted and mean. They do not even allow me to pray regularly or go to the mosque. I have four children, and I haven't seen them for over two years. The money is good and I have paid off my family's debts. But because of other emergency expenses, I have not even been able to build a house or buy land."
The interesting thing about Sadiq was his confidence. "I am illiterate. When I first left Nepal, at every step - airports, planes, roads, factories - I used to feel I would make a mistake and people would abuse me. Now I just walk straight with my head held high. And if I have to fill in a form, I just scribble my name, leave the rest, and negotiate with the person at the counter," he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Most workers had not kept in touch with Nepali politics. But they instinctively understood Nepal's diversity better staying outside than they may have being in Nepal itself. At Dhaka airport, as the names of passengers were screamed out for boarding passes, each ethnicity seemed to be represented - Shrestha to Damai, Tamang to Choudhary, Mahato to Magar. And there was a visible fraternity that had evolved in the course of a plane journey, with each helping the other.
When I asked Sadiq, and other workers, what they thought of Nepal now that they had seen a bit of the world, there was a common refrain to their answers.
"Nepal is totally spoilt. Even Kathmandu looks backward to us now. There is nothing to do at home, and we cannot earn even this much. When we talk to our families, they only mention the bandhs and strikes. The problem is there are no factories in Nepal. If there were, we would have jobs."
Nepal's political class, especially the Maoist dogmatists, should start thinking about how they will deal with this newly assertively 'proletariat', which has far greater exposure than many in the urban lower middle class. This class will not fall for false promises easily. And despite serving as the underbelly of the capitalist machinery, it sees the benefits of industrialisation. Accommodating the new proletariat will have to be a part of any new political design.
At what cost the remittance economy? - FROM ISSUE #423 (31 OCT 2008 - 06 NOV 2008)
Blood, sweat and tears - FROM ISSUE #299 (26 MAY 2006 - 01 JUNE 2006)
Nowhere to turn - FROM ISSUE #275 (02 DEC 2005 - 08 DEC 2005)