‘Our Govt Has Forgotten Us’: Modi, Nepal PM Discuss Stranded Workers as Unrest Grows Among Them

Hundreds of Nepalese workers remain in India and have been attempting to cross the border without success.

Kathmandu: Hundreds of Nepalese migrant borders have been attempting to return home through the India-Nepal border. Most of them have been trapped at the Mahakali Bridge point since India announced its 21-day lockdown. Caught between countries, hunger is a constant companion.

Nepal prime minister K.P. Oli and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Friday agreed to enhance cooperation to further intensify the fight against the coronavirus and underlined the need of taking care of the citizens left stranded in each other’s country due to the lockdown to contain the spread of the pandemic.

Oli and Modi held a telephone conversation. “We stressed the need on taking care of each other’s citizens that are left stranded along the bordering areas due to the lockdown imposed in both the countries,” Oli said.

The Nepal government released a statement on Monday, April 6, saying that no one would be allowed to enter at any cost. Foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali mentioned that entry through the border was out of the question.

Most of the labourers who are stranded belong to Nepal’s Baitadi district and work at Champaran, Pithauragagh and Dharchula. Several have been engaged in construction work, hospitality and daily-wage based labour.

They were stopped at the border on March 29 by Nepal police, leading to protests at the Indian border town of Dharchula. Nepal’s borders and flights are closed in a lockdown similar to India’s but which has been extended to two weeks.

Nara Bhadur Bist, a Dharchula local, posted a video that shows hundreds demanding to enter Nepal.

Three of them, meanwhile, dived into the river Mahakali in an attempt to swim to Nepal. They were held by Nepal police and sent to quarantine. Ramesh Bista, 27, Indra Singh Khatri, 45, and Dhan Bahadur Dhami, 24, say they wanted to reach home.

“We are disappointed with our own government,” said Indra Singh Khatri, who has been quarantined in Baitadi district for a week.

Khatri has been working as the handler of mules for 20 years. The animals are often used for transporting goods.

“I wanted to be with my family of five once the lockdown was imposed. We could not even talk with our local representatives and government serviceman,” Khatri said.

Ramesh Bista, another migrant worker who had dived into the river to cross the border, has been a bus driver for eight years.

“Why do I have a citizenship card if my government won’t make arrangements for me? Only for voting? I feel as if I am not a Nepalese citizen,” Bista, who is quarantined in the Nepalese side of Dharchula, said.

Dhan Bahadur Dhami, the third swimmer said he did not want to die in another country. Dhan has worked at a hotel in Dharchula’s Indian side for the last four years. He too is quarantined in the Nepal side of Dharchula.

Workers are stationed across five locations in Indian Dharchula. “We all are ready to be quarantined after we reach our own country. And want to be tested as per the government rules. We just want to cross the border,” says Chandra Singh Dhami, a stranded worker.

Dhami said there are 1,170 workers stranded. According to the Indian district administration’s Anil Kumar Shukla, the Mini Stadium, the GIC Building in Baluwakot, the Fire Brigade Building in Galati, Gaushala near Mahakali river and Ram Lila Maidan in Jaul Jivi area have been occupied with workers.

“At night we have to use a bottle for toilet and are not allowed to go out. There is no water, no proper bed, not enough food, not even scope for social distancing. Some of us are already sick with fever. We are only provided two meals. That is all. We are not even tested for sickness,” Dharmi said.

Some others have complained of no blanket or proper beds.

Shukla says that attempts to request the Nepal side to take back the workers have not proven fruitful. “I can see that the Nepalese are suffering here. But I can only provide them with the meal, not much else,” he said.

Local journalist Sundar Singh Dhami says although the border has quietened down now, had the protests by workers reached full crescendo, then it would have become a “war zone” that would have reminded the Nepali side that it should not forget its own citizens.

When the coronavirus outbreak took place in Wuhan, the Nepal government had chartered plan to bring back 180 Nepalese students from China.

Yadunath Paudel, the chief district officer of the Nepalese Dharchula said he welcomed the bilateral decision to take care of labourers from each country wherever they currently are.

The matter has already been politicised. Opposition leaders, including Sher Bahadur Deuba, have said they are with the labourers and will fight for their cause. Meanwhile, deputy prime minister of Nepal, Ishwor Pokhrel has urged labourers not to attempt to let emotions hold sway.

On March 23, hundreds of migrant workers entered Nepal through the south border and evaded arrest as well. Most said that quarantine facilities were congested and that they would rather remain at home.

Raman Paudel is a Kathmandu-based journalist.