Recently, many Nepali have been migrating to Gulf countries and Malaysia for work at an unprecedented level: over 1,000 Nepali workers leave the country for foreign employment every day. For many, labor migration is not just a means to overcome economic hardships and accumulate wealth, but is increasingly being pursued as a lifestyle choice. Some analysts argue that such migration has supported the national economy and improved material well-being of many people. And indeed, in a sense labor migration has saved the national economy from collapse, since remittance accounts for almost a quarter of the national GDP.
Rural villages are becoming more gentrified and rural lives becoming more urbane despite some social tensions and contradictions. Many families have been able to send their children to private schools, thanks to migrants who often risk their own lives and stay away from their families to facilitate these outcomes. Among the plethora of migration-triggered changes, a far-reaching change could be the purchase of land by poor and landless migrants.
The majority of labor migrants come from the middle class. Nevertheless, many landless and poor people have also been able to go overseas in search of better lives for themselves and their family members . And notably, many more of the poor aspire to do so when their fortunes allow. Those who entered foreign employment and became successful in it have invested remittance money after meeting their basic needs . Most of these investments are in their priority area of housing plots and lands. As a result, many landless migrants have become landowners across the country. This is, in a way, land redistribution without state intervention, and it is remittance that has made it possible. This is particularly significant in the context of Nepal, where many poor are either landless or own too little land to be of much use. Land remains a key asset for rural people, particularly the poor, as a way of escaping impoverishment.
LABOR MIGRATION AND LAND
While state-centric land reform certainly has some merits, land redistribution triggered by remittance could make the efforts redundant.
Land is important for food security to those who cannot afford to purchase food, and provides housing to those who would not have been able to afford rent otherwise. In addition, many families now live non-agrarian lives, enjoying the fruits of their past labor on the land. Land by itself may not create a high level of prosperity for rural people, but it can certainly act as a basis for upward mobility.
Recently, some national dailies have reported that nearly half a million Nepalis petitioned for their recognition as ‘landless’. If they will be granted the title any time soon is anyone’s guess. The issue of land reform has long been a hot topic of discussion in Nepal. Many social and land rights activists argue that land reform—entailing redistribution, scientific reform, and agrarian reform, among others—is crucial for rural poverty reduction. This may hold immense importance for the landless theoretically, but realizing it is still a contentious issue. It would have been wonderful for land activists and donors to have something to show for their decades of activism, but there have been few achievements. To facilitate land reform (or to delay it, as some would argue), successive governments have formed several commissions, but the problem remains largely unresolved. While a state-centric approach to land reform holds some merit, other factors such as remittance, as outlined above, have triggered land redistribution without state coercion. Since it is extremely difficult for the landless to buy land amidst skyrocketing prices, remittance money that enables them to do so is welcome. This is not to undermine the need of land reform in Nepal. Rather I only wish to hint at an alternative land ownership pattern that can complement redistributive land reform.
However, going for foreign employment is still a herculean task for the poor and landless. The migrants who have been able to transform their social identity from ‘the landless’ to ‘the landowners’ have made it amidst adverse social and economic situations. They face many external problems—dealing with manpower agents, securing funds for their migration, etc—apart from personal ones like long hours, having to live far from their loved ones , language problems and miserable living conditions. These hit the landless and the poor the hardest, given their little or nonexistent social capital and lack of access to finance, among other problems. Since they lack collateral to access funds from financial institutions, they have to depend on multiple local lenders who demand high interest rates for their loans, usually no less than 36 percent. This means loan repayment absorbs most of their foreign earnings, leaving little for families and productive resources. These realities call for state support in facilitation of the migration process for the poor
and the landless. But the state has failed to give adequate attention to this issue.
The state should intervene with right banking policies and create conditions for the acceptance of labor and skills of the landless and the poor as collateral. Creating institutions that provide soft loans may also help level the playing field for the poor. Overall, the state needs to be proactive and sensitive in establishing conditions and devising mechanisms for the landless and the poor so that they can enhance returns from labour migration while reducing associated costs.
The author is a doctoral student at the Australian National University (ANU) firstname.lastname@example.org