Kathmandu Valley´s booming economy has attracted plains labour by the tens of thousand.
Kathmandu residents do not need reminding that there is an open border between India and Nepal. They see evidence of it every day in the large number of Indian labourers and small-time merchants who are to be found in all corners of the city, seeking their fortune.
As Indians of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other outlying states share culture and physical characteristics with Nepal´s own plains dwellers, it is easy to mistake one for the other. However, social scientists and others acknowledge that those plains people providing the skills and services in Kathmandu are overwhelmingly from south of the border.
These Indians, mostly from Bihar, are involved in a variety of occupations: vending fruits and vegetables; serving as master tailors; surviving as ragpickers; working in brick kilns; making wood furniture; and working as contractors and masons at Kathmandu´s ubiquitous construction sites. Thus, while Nepal´s unskilled hill people head south to India to work on menial jobs, Biharis head up to the hills to provide these and other skilled services—so much so that, today, they seem to have become an indispensable feature of Kathmandu life.
Since no records are kept, and an attempt to institute a work permit system has been a non-starter, no one knows the actual number of Indian labourers in Kathmandu. Mrigendra Lal Singh, Head of the Department of Statistics at Tribhuvan University, estimates there are around 200,000 Indians in Kathmandu Valley (out of a 1991 population of 1.1 million), but concedes that no survey has been done.
Home in Kathmandu
The demand for workers from Bihar and elsewhere is propelled by the Kathmandu builder´s and industrialist´s need for a skilled, efficient yet submissive workforce. Other than taking off during festival periods such as the Chhat for Hindus and Eid for Muslims, the Biharis tend to complete the work at hand and quickly move to another. The artisan classes among the indigenous Newars of Kathmandu, on the other hand, tend to be enmeshed in a year-round progression of holidays and festivals, which affects building schedules. Says one building contractor, “This is one main reason why the Nepali employers tend to hire Bihari labour, for even the most basic of assignments.” It is also true that Kathmandu´s booming economy and sky-high real estate prices provides many other economic opportunities for the Newar artisan class, which make them hesitate to pick up hammer or trowel.
The preference for the Bihari labour has negatively affected the job prospects of the ethnic population from Nepal´s hills, however. With few opportunities to learn the skills which would have them replace the Biharis in Kathmandu Valley, they continue to head down to the plains to work as restaurant boys and watchmen.
Interestingly, the trend towards hiring Indians has also affected workers from the Nepal tarai, despite their cultural affinity with Biharis. The construction contractors, who are often from India, prefer to employ labourers from their own regions in Bihar, and this affects the hill and plains Nepalis alike. Says Ramchandra, a labourer from Siraha district which borders on Bihar, “The people of Kathmandu look down upon us as ´Indians´, and the Indian contractors refuse us work as Nepalis.”
The Indian labourers, by and large, find Kathmandu to their liking. All who were interviewed for this article said there was more than enough work to keep them busy year-round. Sanu Mallik, from West Bengal, has lived in Kathmandu for 10 years working as a petty contractor of marble work. He has had continuous work all the time, as has Purushottam Batra, a plumbing contractor from Orissa in Kathmandu since 1982. All the masons Mr Mallik employs are Bengalis, while Mr Batra´s plumbers are all from Orissa.
Says another contractor,” In India we would only get piecemeal work, but here we do not need a license and so can take on the contract for whole buildings. We have to pay taxes in India, whereas here there are no taxes, the air is cooler and the political situation is also very calm.”
For Biharis, many of whom deal in vegetables and fruits either as wholesale merchants or as hawkers going around in bicycles, home is still Bihar. They return home when there is work in the fields, but the Valley is convenient for them, too. “Kathmandu is so close to home, just a day away,” says Jadulal of West Champaran, who has been selling vegetables here for three years. “In India, to start even a small business you need at least five thousand rupees, whereas here you can do well enough by borrowing just five hundred to start with.”
The flip side of being a petty Indian trader in Kathmandu is the animosity that lurks just beneath the surface among some of the locals. Suresh Sohni, a fruit seller from Motihari, says, “The police harass us, the municipality fines us and sometimes even takes away our fruits and produce. And then there are the young louts who loot our goods and even beat us on the slightest excuse.”
But then, Kathmandu housewives revel in the service provided by these door-to-door vegetable vendors. Laxmi Shrestha, one such housewife, admits she does not like madhises (the generic term applied to Indians and Nepalis of Indian origin, sometimes pejoratively), but says: “What are we to eat if these madhises stop coming? Nepalis do not want to pick up the basket.”
“Nepalis are lazy, work slowly, do not have the skills, are more expensive than Indians. Nepalis have just too many festivals to celebrate which means long absences from work. They are too aggressive. The Indians are diligent, and can even be slapped around.” These are common refrains heard all the time among Kathmandu´s employers, some of them Indians.
All this perhaps explains why the garment industry hires plains labour by the thousands. When in 1980, the United States slapped quotas on Indian garment exports, many Indian manufacturers moved their entire production units into Nepal. There are almost 1200 registered garment factories in the Valley, although quite a few have pulled down shutters recently as the quota saturation has also caught up with Nepal.
The factory of Binita Garments employs around 200 workers, mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. “Nepali workers are not disciplined enough. They do not feel the need to learn more skills,” says the manager Kedar Prasad Poudel. “It is not that Nepalis cannot be trained. They´re okay for a short time but soon enough they start creating trouble. Also, they do not work at nights and even if they do, they come drunk and create problems.”
Whether it is in vegetables, carpets, the crafts or construction, the Bihari, the Bengali and Uttar Pradeshi will continue to provide their skills as long as there is demand in Kathmandu. And as long as Nepalis themselves do not learn those skills.