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International labour migration and the landless in Nepal January 23, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, Nepal , trackback

Ramesh Sunam

Nepali youth are migrating for work to the Gulf countries and Malaysia at an unprecedented level. Over 1200 Nepali workers leave the country for foreign employment every day. For many, labour migration is not just a means to overcome economic hardship and accumulate wealth, it is increasingly being pursued rather as a way of life and livelihood. Some analysts argue that migration has contributed to saving the national economy and improving the material well being of many people. And indeed this is true in a broader sense since it has protected the national economy from collapse, accounting for the ratio of remittances to GDP some 25 per cent. Rural places are being gentrified with rural lives becoming more urbane than before despite some social tensions and contradictions. Many families have been able to send their children to private schools. All thanks to the migrants who risk their own lives and who endure being away from their families. Among the plethora of migration-triggered changes, a far-reaching change could be that the poor and landless migrants are now purchasing land.

Although the majority of labour migrants represent the middle class, many landless and poor people have also been able to go overseas in search of a better life for themselves and their family members back home. And notably many more of the poor aspire to do so when their fortunes allow. There is no national-level data on the number of the landless involved in international labour migration. However, in my recent trip to Tarai, the lowland region of Nepal, I observed many landless people pursuing foreign employment as a pathway to escape their impoverishment. Those who are successful in foreign employment have invested remittances, at least for a housing plot, called ghaderi in local terms, which seems to be a key priority when their basic needs are met. As a result, many landless migrants have become landowners across the country. This is, in a way, land redistribution without state intervention – made possible through the remittances and being particularly important in Nepal’s context where many poor are landless or near landless. Land remains a key asset for the livelihoods of rural people, particularly for the poor where it is a basis for preventing further immiseration. Many families now living non-agrarian lives may have gained their status working land sometime in the past. So although land may not be the key factor for a high level of prosperity, it can certainly act as a basis for upward mobility. In addition, land is important for food security for those who cannot afford to purchase food and for housing for those who cannot rent a room.

Recently some national news dailies have reported that nearly half a million Nepalese put forward their applications to the government to recognise them as landless. Uncertainty looms large as to whether they will be granted land. However, the issue of land reform has long been generating considerable political debate in Nepal. Many social and land rights activists claim that land reform – entailing redistribution, scientific reform, agrarian reform and so forth – is crucial for rural poverty reduction. It holds immense importance for the landless but how to make it happen remains an issue. After decades of land-reform movements, land activists and their donors have not achieved much for the landless. To facilitate land reform or, some would argue, to delay it, successive governments have formed several commissions but the problem has remained largely unresolved. While a state-centric approach to land reform holds merit, processes such as migration have triggered land redistribution without state coercion. This is phenomenal since without being involved in foreign employment, land ownership would remain a distant dream for the landless who would have no hope of buying land amidst skyrocketing land prices. This argument is not to undermine the need for land reform in Nepal. Rather my concern is to reveal a different trajectory to owning land that can be complementary to the redistributive strand of land reform.

Nevertheless, it is a herculean task for the landless and the poor to be able to go for foreign employment. The migrants who were able to transform their social identity from being the landless to the landowning succeeded within adverse social and economic contexts. They have to face a lot of initial problems – dealing with manpower agents, securing funds for their migration, let alone downstream ones – long hours, nostalgia, language problems and miserable living conditions abroad. These issues hit the landless and the poor more than others given their lacking or weak social capital, low level of education and lack of access to finance, among other factors. Since they lack collateral to access funds from the financial institutions, they have to depend on multiple local lenders who normally offer loans with high interest rates, usually not less than 36 per cent. This means loan repayments absorb most of their foreign earnings, leaving little for families and productive resources. These lived realities demand the support of the state to facilitate migration processes so as to make work abroad possible for the landless and the poor. But the state has not given the problem adequate attention. Why not intervene with the banking policies so that the labour and the skills of the landless and the poor are accepted as collateral? Creating institutions that provide soft loans may also help develop a level social field for the poor. Overall, the state needs to be proactive and sensitive in establishing conditions and developing mechanisms for the landless and the poor so that they can enhance returns from labour migration while reducing associated costs.

Mr Sunam is a PhD student at Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University


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2. Himal Thapa - February 7, 2013


It looks an interesting piece. Since land reform in Nepal, as elsewhere, has become tough, alternative ways for improving access of the landless to land have to be explored. It sounds like that labour migration has had done this job partly.