Gabrielle Lipton, Leona Liu, Bimbika Sijapati Basnet, The Kathmandu Post, 28 Oct 2017
A six-hour drive from Pokhara, the village of Nalma sits perched atop verdant hills of terraced rice fields. The Annapurna range rises in the distance, its snow-capped peaks a stunning backdrop. The unpaved roads are dirt paths inlaid with iridescent rocks that glitter when touched by the sun’s hot rays.
Time goes slowly in Nalma, where roosters serve as alarm clocks when the first light pierces the sky, signalling that it’s time for a cup of piping hot tea topped with yak milk and a piece of haluwa. This is fuel for days filled with a repeating series of household tasks like sweeping, cooking, feeding the chickens, and taking the mountain goats out to graze. Electricity is spotty, and kids make their own fun by chasing each other in squeal-filled games, sending the chickens flying into panic.
Life here may seem simple and idyllic, sheltered from the woes of the world beyond. But the reality is quite the contrary. In fact, this is a global village, inextricably tied to foreign economies and cultures, and grappling with the inevitable changes that such exposure brings.
For the past decade, the young male work force of Nalma, as in other villages around the country, has looked outside Nepal’s borders for better economic opportunities than what local agriculture provides. Nearly three-quarters of Nalma’s young male demographic now works overseas.
Official figures say that migratory workers now contribute nearly 30 percent of Nepal’s GDP, and that’s likely an underestimation.
However, forthcoming research shows the promise of higher wages abroad is significantly changing land use and socio-cultural dynamics in villages back home, in ways that require serious consideration by policymakers.
Policymakers are well aware of the fact that Nepal is one of the top three remittance-receiving countries in the world, but their focus until now has been largely on safe migration and minimising risks that come with menial jobs overseas. But increasingly, experts and social scientists have been advocating the examination of the impact of out-migration from rural areas on agriculture, lifestyle and the society.
GURUNGS AND DALITS
The social hierarchy of Nalma is two-pronged. First, it is divided into two main groups: the Gurungs and the Dalits. The Gurungs, who served the British during their empire in South Asia, form the land-owning upper class. Currently, they’re in the most able positions to leave Nepal and pursue better lifestyles—better health, education, jobs—in neighbouring cities and towns and as far afield as the United States and Portugal. The Dalits, on the other hand, are Nepal’s ‘lowest’ caste, and first came to Nalma to serve as agricultural labourers for the Gurungs.
As globalisation opens up pathways for Dalits to move abroad to earn better wages, many young men are leaving Nalma behind, rattling the established ways of village life.
“These two social groups have been incorporated into the process of migration in different ways,” says Samata Manandhar, a researcher for Forest Action Nepal, which is working alongside Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Nalma. “In the Gurungs, we see that those who are left behind are elderly, and they depend even more than they did in the past on the Dalits to sharecrop their land or manage it under other contractual systems. And yet they are less willing to change caste-based hierarchies in the village. The Gurungs have an ‘improvement committee’ that determines village life, including the price of labour and land. Wages have been artificially kept low, and the Gurungs prefer to hoard their land to maintain their identity and culture, rather than sell it off.”
However, while the aging Gurung classes are becoming dependent on Dalits, the Dalits have little incentive to continue in this patron-client relationship when better wages can be earned by working in the Gulf states, with greater prospects for economic mobility than in the village.
“Dalits’ relative dependence on agriculture is declining. You see that remittances are becoming a big part of household incomes and women, children and the elderly are left behind among the Dalits too,” Manandhar says.
NEW ROLES FOR WOMEN
The second prong of Nalma’s social hierarchy is Nepal’s patriarchal culture. As men work overseas, women are left to manage the home front alone for years on end. This opens up opportunities for women to take on new roles as decision makers in their families and communities. It also bombards them with an overwhelming amount of work, as they perform their usual tasks in addition to taking on those usually performed by men. But not all types of jobs are seen as replaceable by women, and the higher value accorded to men’s work, as compared to women’s, lives on.
“There is a saying in the village that if women plough the field, all the water will run dry,” explains Manandhar. And yet ploughing is the most important job, one that marks the start of the agricultural calendar, acute shortage of which has meant that previously cultivated agricultural fields are under-utilised or left barren.
Because migration out of Nalma has been happening for so long and has taken on new guises in the current era, Samata says that it’s an ideal village for conducting research to shed light on these issues and bring them to the government’s attention.
“We have not seen any discussions about the effects of migration in agriculture and forestry policy discussions,” she says. “There has been a lot of research on migration, but most focus on the economic impact and well-being rather than social relations. We can see all different aspects of migration, which is why we selected it. We need to think more carefully about what is happening with those left behind, with the migrants themselves, and with the land and forests in areas experiencing growing rates of migration.”
The Left Behind
When asked whether she would have preferred a love marriage over an arranged marriage, Sita Pariyar answers, “How does one know what love means at that age? We were so young.”
Sita, now 27, married her husband when she was 16 years old, and he was only 15.
In the 11 years since, love has meant succumbing to the reality of being a young couple in Nalma. For Sita, this means long days balancing a compendium of household chores with caring for her two elementary-school-aged children, as well as earning a minimal wage working millet fields and rice paddies.
For nearly a year now, she has gone about these tasks alone after her husband, 26-year-old Tika, moved to Qatar to find work. The intention was for him to help pay off their family’s mounting debts and send a more livable sum of money home, but this has not gone as planned, and she has been left struggling to keep everything afloat in his wake.
“He had never been out of the village before,” recounts Sita. “He went to Kathmandu three times, and then he went abroad.”
Tika’s inexperience out of the village resulted in a series of unfortunate events, including a misspelling of his name that led to his visa being cancelled, followed by three months of living in Qatar jobless until his agency was able to find him work.
“Once the breadwinner went abroad, we didn’t have the means to survive for three months. We took out such a big loan to send him [to Qatar]. How are we going to pay it off? How am I going to pay my children’s school fees? I called the manpower agency and told them that either you pay for my husband’s return ticket and send him home, or you have to cover all our living expenses until he is able to send us remittance. Being unemployed for three months is not a small thing for us.”
In order to fill in for his lack of wages, Sita temporarily took over her husband’s former job doing road construction for two months. However, because he had only signed wage slips for one month, she never received a salary for the second. She went back to work as a daily wage agricultural worker in the millet and rice fields, earning Rs 225 per day.
“We work from 10 until 6. If you have to weed paddy fields, that is fine, but to plough and make canals around the planted areas—that’s hard work. In comparison to the work we do, the wage is low.”
Meanwhile, the agency finally found her husband work, but at a salary of Rs 28,500 per month, part of which had to cover his own food and expenses. Sita sold a buffalo and the few goats she had in order to cover school fees and basic household needs until finally he managed to obtain a better wage. He now sends home about Rs 20,000 per month, but it’s still barely enough to make ends meet, let alone pay off their loan.
Sita says that unless her husband can get a salary increase in his current job, it would be wise for him to return home or, better yet, find a different job overseas. Now that her husband has gained experience migrating, she thinks that he will not be duped and will know how to stand up for himself the next time.
When contemplating her future in the next five to ten years, Sita says: “Ah, how will it advance? My husband is an uneducated person. He will always remain a semi-skilled worker. If he gets a good job, maybe there will be a better future ahead.” She smiles in strength. “It is only going to be like this. I don’t think that I will have a prosperous life, but things will go on.”
Min Kasi and Tulasi
Of Min Kasi and Tulasi’s three sons, the eldest lives with his wife in the UK, the second works as a bus driver in Besi Sahar, and the third is also in the UK hoping to be recruited into the British army. Of their three daughters, the eldest is deceased, the second is married, and the third is studying in Pokhara.
All of Tulasi’s brothers and their families have migrated elsewhere too. Now, with their six children only present at home through the sound of their voices on the telephone, Min Kasi and Tulasi have no family in Nalma but each other.
Their children’s migration may be seen as a blessing of being part of the upper Gurung class, but it has in turn become something of a curse for the elderly couple. Their 25 hal of land in Nalma was once planted with rice, but now only about one-fifth of it is cultivated, while the rest is fallow, slowly returning to secondary forest.
“My brothers haven’t taken any land, so all the land can be said to be mine,” says Tulasi of his inheritance. “They have all taken their own paths. I have been farming a small portion, but I cannot do hard work.”
Perhaps a generation ago, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Some of the children might have stayed behind, and the Dalits would have still been abiding by village traditions and sharecropped the land or worked as daily labourers. But this is no longer the case.
“Where can you find labourers?” Tulasi asks. “Everyone is going abroad. They don’t listen. They act like they are superior. Before, we used to get labour. Now it is hard. Even if you have money, it is hard.”
“We do employ labourers when they are available,” Min Kasi adds. “We employ around 10 to 15, but it all comes down to money. If you pay, then you can get. If not, you cannot. And the children [labourers] who study are only free on Saturdays.”
Their UK-based eldest son is now the family breadwinner and sends some money, but most of what he remits goes to his other siblings to help pay for their rent, clothes and food. Only what’s left over goes to help his parents, and the food that is produced from their land is no longer enough to fill their stomachs all year round.
“Our children ask what’s happening with us, they ask about our health and about everything,” says Min Kasi. “During the Dashain and Tihar festivals, everyone comes back. I enjoy that. But when it’s over, they don’t stay here. In the end, it’s only the mother and the father.”
Livestock is a small source of extra income for the couple—goats that they sell for special occasions and two oxen that they lease out during planting seasons—bringing in about Rs 3,500 for four or five days’ rent. Min Kasi also distills liquor, particularly ahead of the annual festivals when it’s in demand. But otherwise, days are spent preparing meals, weeding the paddy fields, and gossiping with friends as they work in the village mill.
“The days go by just like that,” says Min Kasi. But the nights are different. “It is difficult for me to sleep sometimes. What will happen to us in the future? These things come to my mind.”