The closure of the Nepal-India border to contain the possible spread of coronavirus has left hundreds of Nepali migrant workers stranded at the border. Photos and videos of Nepali nationals swimming across Mahakali river to get home have gone viral on social media. Similarly, hundreds of Indian nationals are stranded at the Nepali side of the border. As a temporary measure, both countries have agreed to take care of the citizens who are stuck in the other country.
Stranded without jobs
Nepal and India share a 1750 kilometre long border and there are multiple entry points. The Nepali citizens stuck at the Indian side of the border are demanding the authorities to open it and let them into their own country. In Kathmandu, pressure is mounting on the KP Sharma Oli-led government to take measures to allow citizens to cross the border. People on social media are also pointing out that no government can block its citizens from coming home. Additionally, hundreds of Nepali migrant workers living in different Indian states are without any food and shelter, though the Narendra Modi government has pledged to provide them meal.
Authorities, however, fear that if they allow migrant workers to enter the country, they would be unable to quarantine all of them. The health ministry is already facing difficulties in contact tracing those who arrived home before the border was closed. There are no official COVID-19 figures for the number of infected Nepali nationals living in India and Indians living in Nepal. Although there is no official estimate of the number of Nepali migrant workers living in India, sources at Nepal-India Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG), have told me that there are around one million Nepalese in India. However, a report by South Asian Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SWATEE) estimates that the number can be as high as 2.8 million.
Thousands of Nepali migrant workers reach various parts of India as seasonal migrant workers. Additionally, people in the border areas also go to India as daily-wage workers. In my conversations with the Indian officials, they have claimed that the number of Nepalese living in India is higher than estimated by EPG. Due to open border and no requirement of visas, it is not possible to keep exact record of people staying and traveling to each other’s country. The Peace and Friendship Treaty 1950 has the provision of national treatment of each other’s citizens. There are talks about the amendment of the treaty, including management of the border.
Nepal unilaterally closed the border with India on 23 March As the Indian side was open, a huge number of Nepali migrant workers came to Nepal, which was natural and expected. Thousands of Nepali migrant workers work in India without any formal contract letter or other facilities and they work as daily-wage workers. Many of them do not have homes as they live where they work. With financial recession, many Nepalese migrant workers are likely to lose their employment in India, forcing them to return to their country.
Need for collaboration
The current situation along Nepal-India border clearly shows that there is a need for deep collaboration between the two countries to contain the spread of coronavirus. Only controlling the spread of virus in one country is not a practical solution due to open borders and frequent movement of people.
The crisis along the border emerged because both countries cooperated very little with each other when they decided to go for a lockdown or sealing the border. The outbreak of virus either in Nepal or India was sure to trigger a mass exodus of migrant workers, so both countries should have engaged in consultations on how to manage the movement of people. Given the close social and cultural linkages between the two countries, it is very hard to control the movement of people along the border, and decisions taken by one country directly affects the other country.
Not only migrant workers, but there was also no Indian strategy on how to deal with workers in the unorganised sectors. Now, the two countries have wisely agreed to take care of each other’s workers and feed them. However, leaders of both the countries have not officially informed them that they have taken such a decision. At least, Nepal and India should have jointly informed that people would get food and shelter and they need not worry. This would have assured stranded workers.
Similarly, Nepal is hugely dependent on India for the supply of daily essentials. There is a need for collaboration on how to adopt security measures for the people who have to travel to each other’s country to ensure that the supply system is not affected. Many patients from Nepal go to Indian hospitals for medical treatment on a daily basis. Many of them are already stranded in hospitals in India. Several patients with serious diseases have to travel to India for follow-up check-ups. Similarly, many people have to cross the border in order to meet their family members in cases of emergency.
So, political leaders of both countries should keep in mind the closeness between India and Nepal. and should form a mechanism to deal with such problems. Right now, it seems that there is a lack of proper communication and coordination between the two countries. The issue is not just addressing the current challenges faced by Nepali migrant workers, it is also about collaboration in coming days as well. To effectively contain coronavirus, both India and Nepal need to work together. It could take long a time to fully open the border but India and Nepal need to develop a strategy together on how to manage the flow of people.
The author is a political editor at The Annapurna Express, Kathmandu. Views are personal.