Coping through migration
Migration outward is not a new phenomenon for Nepal. The country has witnessed a steady trend of eastward migration since as far back as the 18th century, when the Shah rulers encouraged farmers to move to more fertile and less densely populated areas of eastern Nepal and parts of present-day Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan. By the end of the century, tea was being cultivated on 45,000 acres of Darjeeling territory by British civil servants profiting from the sweat and labour being poured into tea gardens, road construction and road maintenance; more than 90 percent of the workers came from Nepal. The colonial presence in India also resulted in the recruitment of Nepali men into Gurkha regiments of the British Indian Army. Over the centuries, Nepal’s open border relationship with India endured despite brief hiatuses. In 1950, a Nepal-India Peace and Friendship Treaty was signed, which has afforded citizens of both countries the right to unhindered passage across the over 1400 km-long border, as well as equal employment rights in the other country.
By virtue of its proximity, the open border, established networks and relatively low migratory costs, around 40 percent of Nepali migrants end up in India, especially people from poor, food-insecure areas in the rural hinterland. While India is often the first and ‘cheapest’ destination for work, internal migration within Nepal also accounts for 30 percent of migration flow, and labour movements to destinations further away – in West Asia and South East Asia, for instance – is on the rise for those with the resources.
For those living in the Far- and Mid-Western hill and mountain regions, migration has evolved as a seasonal coping strategy, and is also a common livelihood approach for poor communities in the southern Tarai plains. In these areas, migration is intricately linked to the cropping calendar, with in-migration and out-migration coinciding with the beginning and end of the sowing and harvesting operations. These links are so intertwined that an old saying in the Mid-Western region of Jumla has it that “If a migrant does not return by the time of rice sowing and seed-bed preparation, he may as well be dead.” But despite its gradual systematisation, migration was initially a transitional coping mechanism to deal with the vagaries of weather, natural disasters, man-made calamities, and lack of alternative economic opportunities among these food-insecure communities. It was not meant to be a permanent solution.
Regardless of its ad hoc origins, today overall migration involves a startling 25 percent of the adult male population in Nepal, according to the Nepal Living Standards Survey (2003/04). Around 44 percent of households have one or more family members away pursuing labour opportunities, even during the harvesting period, as reported by WFP’s Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (September 2005).
Passage to India
By shedding light on the benefits and risks involved for both the migrant and the broader community left behind, the report makes recommendations for relevant international organisations and non-governmental organisations to assist in minimising the risks and maximising the benefits of voyage. The most critical finding for WFP, in its obligations as a leading global organisation in the fight against hunger, was the linkage between food security and migration. The poorer communities have for decades used migration as an established mechanism to cope with periodic food insecurity.
“Passage to India” aims to fill the knowledge gap on short-term migration strategies of Nepali households, triggered by natural or man-made calamities, seasonal food shortages, or lack of or limited employment opportunities. Results were aggregated from surveys, focus-group discussions and qualified data analysis in 15 districts, selected for their high levels of food insecurity and vulnerability, more proximate experiences to intense conflict, and severe impact from natural disasters. A total of 447 households were consulted and interviewed, including surveys of migrants at 11 main border points along the India-Nepal border. Migrants were usually male, between the ages of 10 to 65, from ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ households with limited education. Of those surveyed by WFP and NDRI, Dalits made up 31 percent, a significant percentage given their minimal numbers in the study areas. In addition, 44 percent were Chhetris and Brahmins, and 19 percent were Janajatis; however, it must be noted that the survey was conducted in overwhelmingly Brahmin and Chhetri areas. The extent to which these communities depend on migration is evidenced in the fact that more than 76 percent of the studied households had at least one member working away from their homes.
Spoken benefits and unspoken risks
Yet for all of its advantages, job migration also involves significant risks, often bringing concomitant misfortune to migrants and their families. These include sporadic abductions and gross violations of human rights, as well as abuses such as withdrawal of payments, severe delays or diminution of salaries, unendurable and dangerous working conditions, lack of health insurance and compensation for work-related accidents, and contraction of contagious diseases. For the family members, the absence of the migrant, who is typically the main breadwinner, often makes them even more vulnerable to food insecurity. Migration of the menfolk also places immense workload burdens on women, the elderly and children, as well as disrupting family bonds. In addition, the migrant often incurs huge debts due to exorbitant interest rates on credit used to fund travel, even while facing the possibility of theft at the mercy of thieves and gangs en route. For all this, remittances sent by migrants from India are comparatively low, no more than NPR 9800 annually.
These understudied psychological consequences are added to by the dangers of contracting HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis while in the host locality. A large-scale survey among labour migrants in August 2006 found HIV prevalence of 1.1 percent and 2.8 percent in the Western and Mid-Far Western regions, respectively. Adding to the complexity, there is wide variation in migratory experiences. Some families benefit from the financial security migration brings and the reduced pressure on domestic food supply; while others suffer from the whims of misfortune, acquiring unpayable debts and little monetary profit.
Voyaging for vitals Most significant for WFP is the linkage between access to food and the decision to migrate, affirming the promise that food assistance and increased economic activities would alleviate the need to migrate. In Nepal, WFP is engaged in a USD 109 million project to help protect the lives and rehabilitate the livelihoods of more than 2.7 million food-insecure people. After unemployment, insufficient access to food was cited as the second most significant factor determining whether an individual will decide to migrate; in this, the migrants interviewed admitted that if they had sufficient access to food or a job (one that paid some NPR 1200 per month), they would not leave home.
It was observed that the bulk of remittances are being used for education and clothing, followed by food. Furthermore, basic foodstuffs appear to be the most common in-kind remittances, with rice of particular importance. When looking at the country’s demographics, the fact that more people migrate during periods of lean food availability comes as no surprise. Nepal’s economy has traditionally been dominated by agriculture, only relatively recently extending to non-farm related activities such as trade, manufacturing and services. In 2003-04, 78 percent of households were sustained by agriculture. At the end of 2007, agriculture contributed to about 38 percent of GDP. From this evidence it can be inferred that when food assistance is well targeted – i.e., when it reaches those who need it, when they need it – it can be a powerful inhibitory force to down-spiralling poverty and pressure for migration. Supportive WFP findings also suggest that migration substantially decreases when food assistance is provided.
Foremost in this is the integration of migration into WFP’s needs assessments, and the scheduling of food assistance in accordance with anticipated periods of food insecurity, in addition to continuing with the current food-for-work programmes. Other recommendations include:
• Skills-based training schemes for additional off-farm sources of income;
• Extension of access to micro-credit;
• Food- or cash-for-work programmes; and,
• Awareness, prevention and treatment of HIV.
Collaborative efforts need to be urgently considered, given the interrelation of migration with issues such as food security, health, education and impact on women and children. Strategies that incorporate the causes and address the negative impact of migration would best suit the particular subject group of poor and rural communities studied for this report, for whom migration is often a matter of survival rather than pleasure.
The English version of the “Passage to India” report is available online at www.wfp.org.
For a hard copy of the English publication or the abbreviated Nepali version, contact WFP at:
World Food Programme Nepal
Chakupat, Patan Dhoka Road
Lalitpur, PO Box 107
+ 977 1 5542607