Who Will Till Our Fields?

KATHMANDU: Remittance has been a lifeline to Nepal’s sluggish economy and, a means to bring the poor people out from the abyss of economic hopelessness. Fuelled by lack of employment opportunities at home, everyday more than1700 Nepalis—most of them youths and males — have been leaving the country in search of a green pasture. Nepal is one of the top five remittance-receiving countries in terms of ‘Remittance to Gross Domestic Products’ ratio, and second largest remittance receiver among the LDCs, followed by Bangladesh. Around 56 per cent of households in the country receive remittance, while country’s poverty line has been reduced to below 25 per cent, which is expected to go further down in the current fiscal year, thanks to remittance inflow in the poor strata of the society. These are the some glorifying tips that Nepalis enjoy as a result of outmigration, basically labor migration to foreign countries. However, the bleak sides of such migration including its social costs and issues of sustainable national development just by exporting the country’s human resources are still unaccounted for by the authorities and stakeholders concerned.

Researchers Dr Jagannath Adhikari and Dr Mary Hobley’s new research book Everyone is Leaving-Who Will Sow Our Fields? The Effects of Migration from Khotang District to the Gulf and Malaysia fills such gaps and obliges one and all to delve into the pros and cons of outmigration. The book’s readability comes from the researcher duo’s detailed, useful and interesting study on demographic, social and economic dynamics of the migrant workers and their families, and societies at large.
The book is based on the field study in Bamrang and Patheca VDCs in Khotang district and in Ghaighat, the most sought-after destination for many migrant families from Khotang. The field study findings are well integrated with national picture and links out-migration and remittances with the process of re-migration, particular from hills to Tarai, and from rural areas to urban areas leading to growing urbanization. The study focuses mainly on migration from Khotang to Gulf countries and Malaysia.

Divided into seven different chapters, the book touches upon many topics including migration, remittance inflow and its use, agriculture, laborers’ availability in the villages to wage labor price, land-labor relations, and change in land ownership and social geography among many others.

In its background and methodological approach of the study, the first chapter describes overall overview of the research. Chapter second traces the national level context for migration describing key trends and drivers for change over 10 to 15 years. Here the writers argue, “despite the growth in migration of Nepalese labor for work, there is still a lack of systematic data as to the real extent of migration. This is partly because it is difficult to measure the scale of migration to India and irregular migration.”

Chapter Three ‘Khotang Context’ reviews the changes in Khotang and the macro-level effects in the district, and provides a wider framing to the detailed study results by looking at the overall migration trends in the VDCs concerned. Here researcher duo makes minute observation of Khotang and offer some shocking revelations like high migration rate among Dalits (40.1 per cent) followed by ethnic communities (38.9 per cent) and Brahmins/Chhetris (34.5 per cent).

Similarly, chapter four shows rural-urban nexus between Khotang and the inner Tarai, especially Gaighat, where the researchers explore the effects of, what they call ‘Khotangisation’, with villages taking on new identities with the influx of many households from one village or area in Khotang. Likewise, chapter five analyses the major changes in migrant and non-migrant households and the effects of caste and ethnicity. Some field notes and data have added real values to the analysis serving well-being trends between migrant versus non-migrant households. The analysis of the data and information revealed that the poor and medium households have benefited the most from migration. It is also noteworthy that very poor Dalits are more successful from migration than very poor Brahmin/Chhetris and Rais. However, it is interesting that no Dalit ‘very poor’ non-migrant households have improved their well-being over the same period.

The most important topic of the book is covered in chapter six, which explores the impact of migration on the community like less availability of male labor, rising wage labor prices, declining productivity, increase in fallow land and decline in livestock numbers, among others. The chapter is thought provoking as it shows the real picture of the society, now populated only by women, children and elderly population after the young population leaves for the gulf nations and Malaysia to earn the wages. Similarly, the economic independence brought about by out-migration has helped obliterate traditional patron-client relationship between Dalits and landowners, usually Brahnin/Chhetris and Rais.

The last chapter of the book sheds light on the major findings of the study where the researchers say that migration in the district is to stay as the major livelihood option for most young men and as a tool to improve their downtrodden economic status and move out of poverty.

In general, the research book is captivating and convincing for its due analysis of overall aspects of outmigration and remit-economics, a necessary evil. Likewise, this book is not only about the impacts of out migration to the gulf and Malaysia; it also incorporates Nepalis’ ethos and pathos and, to some extent, success stories as well. Also after reading the book, one can draw a conclusion that social mobility, social transformation, access to quality education, consumption of world-class goods, empowerment of Dalits, women and countrymen’s exposure to the western model of development are some of the positive aspects of outmigration. Additionally, increase in balance of payment and sufficient liquidity in the market are the issues that government always highlights, thanks to remittance inflow. Now, responsibility lies on the government and stakeholders to prod the migrant workers to invest in Nepal for capital formation and generate employment as suggested by researchers.

The title of the book ‘Everyone is Leaving-Who Will Sow Our Fields?’ itself is gripping and open-ended. It is a rhetorical question, carrying multiple answers, followed by another series of questions as there is less sowing of our fields in absence of youths in the village resulting in a change in the overall structures of the society if such a trend is to continue in the coming decades too. The preface by sociologist Dr Ganesh Gurung and introduction by Prof Dr David Seddon have added value to the book.

Finally, the researchers deserve a great applaud for brining such a beautiful research book and for offering recommendations to the stakeholders, policy makers and academics to recognize the scale of foreign labor migration and the remittance economy and its impact on society, especially left behind family members, and on social relation among different groups of people.

(The review of the book was published in The Rising  Nepal Daily). The reviewer could be reached at [email protected]