Highlanders on the Move

From Himal (July 1998)

At the age of 16, Diwan Singh Bohra was forced to leave his village of Karan Karayal in Pithoragarh District of Uttar Pradesh. His father, Badri Singh, had only 10 bigah of degraded hilly land, which did not produce enough to support a family of six children. So, Diwan Singh went to seek his — and his family’s — fortune in the bustling city of Lucknow.

Today, eight years later, Diwan Singh is 24 but looks 40. Every day, he works from break-of-dawn to dusk and earns IRs400 per month doing two jobs as a domestic servant. He sends half the money to the joint family back in Karan Karayat, including his wife, whom he can visit only once a year at Holi or Diwali and even that only if both his employers agree.

Down  and out
“I would never have come to this city if I had opportunities in my village,” he says.    However,   the situation   in  Karan has further deteriorated since he
left. “As Kshatriyas, the villagers used to join the military, but today we are
mostly  cooks   and  house-servants working far away for meagre salaries, at the mercy of our employers.”

For hundreds of thousands of men and women like Diwan Singh, migrating from the Himalayan highlands to the plains to find work has become a lifelong, wrenching exercise. The numbers are not precise, but the best estimates indicate that close to half a million Nepalis are absent from the country for six months or more each year.

In the Uttar Pradesh Hills, 46 out of every 100 men are away on a semi¬permanent basis from their wives and families. Sixteen families from Kanduli, a village in Pauri Garhwal, have left for the plains and most of the remaining 60 families have their menfolk away for part of the year,  leaving only 26 young men in the village. In Jajoli, Pithoragarh District, one quarter of its 360 people are migrants, most of them in Bombay, Delhi or in the Indian Army.

One tragic dimension of the migration issue is the increasing burden on women, says Mahesh Banskota of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). According to him, even as life in the mountains has become harsher, with the men away, the women are heading households of the elderly and the young and managing the terraces with fewer resources.

In Almora and Pauri Garhwal, up to 40 per cent of households were headed by women, according 10 R.S. Bora, a demographer at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi University. “High illiteracy and existing traditions restrict the migration of females,” he says.

The Human  Dimension
This problem of migration is peculiar to the Nepali hills and the Indian districts immediately to the west because they, more than others, are marked by poverty, lack of development, over¬population, decreasing soil fertility and eroded, unproductive hillsides. “Most mountain regions in the world are poor, but our mountains ire at the bottom¬most rung,” says a Nepali economist who has long studied the economic and political aspects of migration. “And when you are the poorest, you migrate and work as menial labour, no questions asked.”

Nepali migrants do not only travel to the plains. Such is the destitution in Nepal’s far west that the inhabitants go to work as labourers across the border in the Garhwal. Any traveler to Naini Tal or Mussorie will be besieged by Nepali coolies in torn, work-blackened clothing and they are the lucky ones, earning IRsl5 or more a day, as porters. Others earn much less: IRs6.50 a day working on the roads; IRs6 as loggers; or 1Rs7.50 for pulling rickshawS.

While the phenomenon of migration might not extend throughout the Himalayan crescent, the human dimension is still vast. Emigrants leave sedate hill societies and loved ones for fast-paced, commercial centres like Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. While some of their village kinship structures survive even in these alien environments, Nepalis, Kumaonis and Garhwalis in the plains face enormous psychological and social pressures.

No  Respect
Dilli Dahal and Chaitanya Mishra, of the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS), recently talked to 306 Nepal-born families living in North India. The migrants said they suffered most from job insecurity, “lack of respect”, and a sense of separateness from the local community. They did not have proper housing, worried over family members left behind, and, most poignantly, “they did not see how ventilating their problems to outsiders could ease the sharpness of such problems.”

In addition to living generally insecure lives economically, Nepali migrants live in a political no-man’s land. They are free to migrate to India, but do not
have citizenship rights, or the rights accorded to bona fide international
workers. The fuzziness between Nepali-born   migrants   and  the millions of Indians of Nepali origin adds to the confusion.

“The undeclared Nepali state policy has been to tolerate cross-border migration and to regard it as a safety valve,” says a political scientist from Tribhuvan University. Now, that safety valve has been used up. The expulsion from Meghalaya of people of Nepali origin has brought a problem that has long festered away from the public eye into sharp focus. “The problem can no longer be wished away. Both countries must tackle this very complex politico-economic question head on. There are no simple answers,” says the scholar.

Why They Leave
Geographer Bal Kumar K.C. says that Nepali migrants cite lack of food, inequality, poverty, and miniscule land holdings as the cause for pulling up stakes (basain sarnay) in their mountain villages. In the Nepali hills, six persons must share a hectare of cultivable land. An analysis of the latest Nepali census (1981) data by the National Planning Commission showed that “the scarcity of cultivable land is one of the major reasons for exodus of the (hill) people”.

The Tarai proves attractive because of the Government’s resettlement programme, better pasture land, availability of off-farm employment, and access to fuelwood. Within Nepal, the greatest exodus is to the eastern Tarai, where the land is more fertile than the central and western Tarai.

According to geographer Harka Gurung, a major factor inducing highlanders to migrate is the regional disparity in development. “The five- year-plans of the last three decades have emphasized road-building and agriculture, with the lowlands having a locational advantage,” says Gurung. According to his figures, the last three decades have seen a 16-fold increase of population in the Tarai.

Poverty to More Poverty
Migrants go from poverty in the hills to do menial work in the plains. The hills run on the well-known “money order economy”, with remittances sent home by the husband or father or son. About 40 per cent of all Nepali emigrants work as guards or nightwatchmen in Indian towns and cities. All over India, Nepalis are also found working as restaurant boys, junior technicians, wage labourers and truck drivers and helpers. A tea-picker in Sri Lanka was the southern-most Nepali labour-migrant located.

In their study of Nepali migrants in India, Dahal and Mishra of CNAS found “not a single medical doctor, engineer or administrator”. Thus, the stream of migrants represents not a “brain drain” but a “muscle drain”. Yet that brawn brings awfully little remuneration, according to recent statistics by the International Labour Organization. In 1985, remittances from Pakistani migrants amounted to $2.5 billion, while the figure for Bangladesh was $395 million and for Sri Lanka, $249 million.

Nepali migrants, for all their numbers, were able to send back only $36 million. The reason for the disparity in the ability to earn, of course, is that while the others travel to the Gulf States to earn dollars, Nepalis go to work as chaukidars in Gorakhpur for IRs20 or less a day. Nepalis in the Delhi area today fulfil the demand for lowest paying jobs, slipping into a slot left by the upscale migrants from Kumaon and Garhwal, says Ashish Bose, President of the Indian Population Studies Association. He adds, “The Kumaonis and Garhwalis have moved up the economic ladder and no longer work as domestic servants because they have other choices. For example,  they  can  join  the  Border Security Force. When they do descend to the plains, they now work in the organized Government sector, which has perks and benefits.”
“Some aspects of migration, particularly for the Nepatis, are quite dehumanizing. They fill the lowest posts and can return home for only a month or so every two years. ‘ The migrants from the Indian hills can visit more often because of the roads,” says Bose. “On the other hand, you have to remember that even this poor situation, for the Nepalis, is an improvement over the alternative. After all, migration is a human endeavour to improve the quality of life.”

However, most Nepali migrants have not “made it”. They may be reconciled to their situation, but migration, while it might have allowed them to survive, has not in any sense improved their quality of life. Visit a jhuggi in a Nepali settlement across the Jamuna from Old Delhi and one will find a dry and dusty semi-ghetto. There is a certain sense of security, because the inhabitants all come from the same district in west Nepal, but these Nepalis have no land or property. The occasional chaukidar owning a rickety bicycle is considered lucky. There is no electricity. The fact that the children go to school is regarded as the major — perhaps only — improvement.

Classical economic theory holds that migrants leave their place of origin in order to search for better opportunities. But what of a situation where, because of extreme poverty, the question of opportunity does not even arise? “Most out-migrants from the Nepal highlands are ‘survival migrants’, they leave for the sheer necessity of survival,” says geographer Gurung.
“They come here youthful and healthy, but due to hard unremmiting labour they fall victim to disease and either die here or return home, there to spread the disease further,” says Girish Chandra Pandey, an economist in Kumaon University. 54 per cent of the Nepali migrants he studied were ill, with fever, asthma, liver trouble or venereal disease. The migrants often have nowhere to stay and use station platforms and rock overhangs for shelter. Pandey says there is a need for providing housing and regulation to protect the  interests of the migrants.

Benefits   of Migration
Bikasbabu is one hill emigrant who has significantly improved his situation. Twelve years ago, he came to Bombay and drifted in and out of jobs as a tyre factory watchman  and  a truck-driver’s helper. His break came when a village kinsman fell ill and “loaned” him the job of a “domestic” for a Parsi businessman in the city’s affluent Malabar Hill section. The friend was never able to return and the job became his. The businessman pays well and now even allows Bikasbabu to handle the   household finances.

In addition, Bikasbabu has been able to “import” many of his villagers and place them with other Parsi families in Bombay as cooks and darbans. He charges them three months’ pay as commission and with some also asks for further monthly cuts. With his income, Bikasbabu has been able to buy property back in Nepal and is today his village’s   biggest absentee landlord.
Migration does not come without its benefits, as Bikasbabu found out.

According to the scholars from CNAS, emigration has provided the hill folks with a sense of entrepTeneurship, additional skills and increased purchasing power. It has subsidized the standard of living and “has helped the mountain and the hill areas and Nepal as a whole to irudge on,” they say. A sudden staunching of migration would have serious economic and political consequences at all levels of Nepali society.

In the U.P. Hills, Bora found that returning migrants who had held jobs in government were  active in stimulating community activities and good in dealing with authority. However, he says, return of military pensioners did not help bring innovation in village life because “in their jobs they only learn army rules and discipline”. Others, however, say returning army personnel have brought in new ideas and used appropriate technology for the benefit of remote areas.

While noting that migration provides a safety valve for Nepal’s stress- ridden hills, Dahal and Mishra warn against a “proclaimed or de facto strategy” of tolerating the situation, because it flies in the face of much-vaunted plans for national self-reliance. Official acquiescence to the situation will also intensify the “super-exploitation” of the emigrants, they say.

Looking to the Future
The Nepal Tarai has been absorbing excess population from the hills for some time but it cannot do so forever, cautions geographer Bal Gopal K.C. At the same time, recruitment into the armed forces has peaked and opportunities in the plains are stagnant. Expulsion of Nepal-born persons from north-east India has brought the matter to a head. However, migration will continue because the hills remain undeveloped   and   impoverished.

As lCIMOD’s Banskota puts it, “The resource base of the hill farmer is decreasing dramatically.     There  is little off-farm employment, agricultural productivity is down and the forests are degraded. As long as this process continues migration will continue to increase.”

There is no choice for checking “this massive human outflow from the hills but to develop the Himalaya through “secondary and tertiary sector activities”, says Delhi University’s Bora. Participants at a recent ICIMOD workshop said it was imperative to bring “genuine development” to the hills. The agricultural land-based system must be gradually transformed into a market-oriented economy and “a hierarchy of bazaars, market towns and service centers set up to act as links between the village and the urban centre”. The key is to find “off- farm employment”, as subsistence agriculture can no  longer sustain the population.

Real social and economic progress of the far-flung hill communities of Uttar
Pradesh and Nepal, then, is the only way out of the dilemma. In the absence of sustained, grassroots development, destitute hill people will continue to migrate in ever increasing numbers to face psycho-social trauma, political rejection and poor job situations in the plains.

Others Who Migrate
Those who fiee extreme poverty of the hilis for work in the plains make up the largest portion of Himalayan migrants, but by no means are these “survival migrants” the only ones.
Since the early 1800s, the highlanders have been recruited into the British  and subsequently the Indian armed forces. There are “economic migrants” from among the more entrepreneurial communities in the mountains. The Tibetan-speaking people of Mustang principality in northern Nepal, for example, spend spring and summer at home but in the cold months, many are down in the Indian plains, selling sweaters and carrying on other kinds of trade. Come spring, they return to their walled township of Lo  Mantang.

Tibetans who ieft their homeland in the late 1950s make up another large segment of highlanders .in the plains. They live in pockets across the subcontinent, radiating out from their hub in Dharmsala, where the Dalai Lama lives.Perhaps more politically problematic than highlanders descending to the populous plains is the move of plains people to the mountain towns, as entrepreneurs, craftsmen and skilled workers. Unlike the hill people descending to the plains, these “economic migrants” are in search ‘of opportunities rather than subsistence. “A skilled Indian plainsman working as an electrician or bricklayer in Kathmandu takes away more capital than an unskilled hillman working in India,” says a Nepali economist. “On the other hand, the skilled worker is  providing a service demanded by an* urban elite which the local labour market cannot provide. So how can you quarrel?”

The Historical Process
Migration is not a new phenomenon in the mountains of South Central Asia. The Himalaya has been both a new frontier and a vestigial haven for diverse races down through the ages. For a historical record of the process one has only to look at the wide variety of languages and dialects that exists in Nepal today: 19 Tibeto-Burman tongues, 11 Indo-Aryan, two Munda and one Dravidian.

The peopling of the Himalaya was the outcome of successive waves of migration from today’s Sechuan-Yunnan in the northeast and “westerners” from the Central Asian steppe. The first migrants probably came in around 2000 B.C. through north-Burma, Assam, Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal. A second group traveled westward around 200 B.C. along the Tsangpo valley into Tibet, some of them moving further west and south across Himalayan passes.
While the Kirat {“Mongoloid”) people established themselves east of the Gandak basin, the Western Himalaya became   the   home   of   an   early “Caucasoid” group, the Khasa, and of refugees fleeing successive Mohammedan onslaughts from the 10th Century onward. Tibetan influence spread in the 7th Century when the forces of Srong-tsan-sgamp-po swept down to the Ganges plain. In the east, the Shan A horns descended to the Brahmaputra valley  in  the  early   13th  Century.

Between the 12th and 18th Centuries, the Khasas spread eastward, with the population movement along the hills between the mountain barrier to the north and the malarial moat of the Tarai to the south. Moving eastward along the Gandaki basin towards more humid climes, the Khasas ultimately reached Kathmandu. Their Gorkhali heirs extended their domain and briefly ruled from the Tista to the Sutlej until thwarted by the superior arsenal of the East India Company in 1815.

Westward and Eastward
In the early 1800s, the British encouraged migration of the hill people to the eastern Himalaya for timber work in Assam and newly-opened tea plantations  in Darjeeling. Some  Nepali migrants reached as far east as Burma to raise livestock. Nepalis were welcomed into Sikkim starting in 1888 to counteract Tibetan incursions. The Indian census of 1951 reported that 47 per cent of the Nepal-born population in India was to be found in the eastern states of Arunachal, Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal.

While the population movement was from west to east till the 1950s, in the
last three decades, the flow has been from north to south, frdm mountain to
plain. Malaria control and government resettlement schemes opened up the
Tarai lowlands as a new frontier. Vast tracts of Tarai jungles were razed to
cater to people leaving hills marked by high demographic stress and extreme
poverty. Today, because of development focus and migration, the Tarai has the potential of becoming the dynamic region of Nepal.

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