Impact of shutdown on migrant Nepali workers in India and GCC

By Sudeep Sonawane
Surat, Gujarat, May 11, 2020

Migrant Nepalis living in the Middle East and India shared contrasting stories to Gujarat Guardian on the impact of shutdown ordered by governments because of coronavirus pandemic.
Stories of a few Nepalis interviewed by this journalist do not tell the complete reality. Millions of Nepalis work in the GCC, the Asian sub-continent, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea in the Far East. The virus may have infected many. Some may have recovered at the healthcare and quarantine centres set up by local authorities. Many people walked back from India and crossed over into Birganj from Raxaul or the other nine entry points on the border, according to media reports.
Government response of countries mentioned above would decide the fate of migrant Nepali workers. Wise decisions and good healthcare services would ensure their job security. Bad decisions would mean more infected people and, speculatively, more without jobs and the prospect of flight back to Kathmandu.
Janakpur, Dhanusa native Teji Lal, 37, says, “The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has ensured workers do not face difficulties in buying groceries and using other services.”
The Nepali lives and works in Dubai since the last 12 years. He seems satisfied with his employer 24 Al Arabia Auto Service where he works as a vehicle polisher.
“My employer has rescheduled staff working hours because of the pandemic. We work for 15 days alternating with a day off. They have given us protective gear including mouth mask, gloves and covers. We keep two-meter distance while dealing with clients,” says Teji Lal.

The shutdown is boon to some and bane to some.

Living in the UAE for more than two decades, Thane, Maharashtra, resident Ravi Dhanawade says, “The UAE government has issued strict public order rules to prevent the spread of coronavirus. People violating these rules could face fines starting from AED 1,000 to 50,000. People breaking quarantine, refusing admission in hospital or not taking medicines and violating administrative closure of public places like shopping malls, markets, cinema, clubs, and restaurants could face the highest fine of AED 50,000.”
The UAE government’s strict anti-Covid 19 measures benefit citizens as well as the huge expatriate workforce. Nepalis living and working in the UAE benefit a lot because their health safety means Nepal bound remittances continue uninterrupted.
On the east of the Arabian Sea, Chef Shankar Bohara, a Nepali who lives in Surat, rues the shutdown. It has stopped his life because of the enforced confinement and no prospect of income.
“This Covid-19 has struck like an invisible tsunami on all, not just Nepalis,” says Shankar. “This invisible virus and the shutdown affect all. Two months ago, not many people, forget ordinary workers like me, would have imagined this calamity would fall on the world. This has inflicted misery on people and the poor suffer the most.”
Up to February this year, he and a few other Nepalis worked for Black Chilli Restaurant, a middle level restaurant, 400 metres away from Greencity in Bhatha Village, Surat. Life was good for Shankar and the restaurant staff in 2019.
Thirty-one-year-old Shankar’s family — parents, three brothers and one sister – live in Dhangadi, Kailali District in Sudurpashchim Pradesh, Nepal. He is one of the lakhs of Nepalis working hard in India to provide a better living for family back home.
Shankar and his co-workers’ lives changed in the last quarter of 2019. Uncertainty loomed when they came to know Black Chilli owner Nehal Babaria decided to sell his restaurant because of dwindling business.
Babaria’s five-month long quest to sell the restaurant finally succeeded in February while coronavirus had stealthily entered India. He laid off his staff. He also ensured they did not remain jobless. He placed them in restaurants owned by his friends in Surat.
“I felt obliged to transfer my staff to other restaurants,” said Babaria. “My kitchen staff comes from Uttarakhand and Nepal. Some went back to Nepal. Some, who joined other restaurants in Surat, have no money even to recharge their cellphones. So I regularly recharge their talk-time online for them to call their respective families in Nepal.”
Corroborating this Shankar said, “Our new owners have given us jobs, but we do not receive salary. I do not blame them. There is no business for them because of the shutdown. They are kind to give us food every day.”
All workers do not have such grim stories to share. There are some fortunate Nepalis like Suresh Pokharel. The 25-year-old works for a private organisation in Kochi, Kerala, since he arrived here more than one year ago from Pulchowk, Kathmandu.
“I am least affected by this shutdown,” says Pokharel. “I work and live with my co-workers and have food in our compound. Yes, I cannot visit the shopping malls and other public places, but this shutdown gives me time to continue my studies and read books. My life couldn’t be better. I have no complaints. The local authorities here have taken adequate healthcare safety measures.”
There may be many more contented young men like Pokharel living in India, thanks to the support of the federal and local governments in India and community service work being done by NGOs and religious organisations.
For instance, the Surat Municipal Corporation daily provides food to 5.5 lakh stranded people including migrant workers. The BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha distributes over 100,000 food packets to bachelors, spinsters and senior citizens besides migrant workers. Other Hindu community groups, notably the Jains, too are regularly serving food packets during this crisis. The Sikh community, led by Gurudwara Shri Tegbahadur Sahib on Bhatar Road, Guru Nanak Wadi in Udhna and Guru Gobind Singh in Kadodara run community kitchens food for needy people and these days migrant workers.
Similarly Christian and Catholic churches all over India supply food packets to the needy. Muslim organisations and individuals also serve food to the stranded and needy, but they do in the evenings because of the Holy month of Ramadan.
Community service and charity is fine, but the question is: – Will someone find a solution to fix the virus and restart economies that are comatose since the last two months?