Prakash Poudel started an agricultural farm at Pokhara’s Musetuda in October last year. He had hoped the new business would be profitable and he would not have to go back to the Gulf for work. He had started the farm with five cows and buffaloes after returning from Qatar four years ago. The number later reached 15. But these days he is worried about the sustainability of his venture.
Helpers are unavailable and his market access has been blocked due to the lockdown. His overall costs have spiked, along with the price of bran and straw for the cattle. Poudel is uncertain if the easing of the lockdown will help much.
“Bank loans comprise around 75 percent of my investment. If I can’t do business, I can’t pay back,” Poudel says. “If things don’t improve soon, I may again have to go abroad for work—if that option is still open amid a global pandemic.”
He foresees difficulty in delivering his dairy products door-to-door even after the crisis. Seeing fellow farmers in the neighborhood dump rotten vegetables does not give much hope.
There are others like Poudel who expect things to only get worse in the days ahead, lockdown or not.
Mausam Upreti had started a liquor store in Kapan area of Kathmandu after returning from Japan last year. He had high hopes from the store named ‘Bottles’, where he sank a lot of his savings. But just as business was picking up, the pandemic struck and lockdowns started. “The rents are rising. I have to pay almost Rs 200,000 a month in rents. For a new business, it was already a huge burden even without the pandemic,” he says.
For Dipak Bhattarai, a UAE-returnee taxi driver in Kathmandu, the lockdown has meant a total loss of income. He is struggling to feed his family, even as he has to pay monthly bank installments of the loans taken out against the taxi. “I have two more years to clear bank loans. Now I don’t have work. But I still need to pay the loans, room rent, and food,” he laments. For people like Bhattarai who survive on daily earning, things are getting tougher by the day. He too is unsure his taxi business will go back to normal even after the end of the corona crisis.
The government is under pressure to bring back Nepali migrants stranded in Malaysia and Gulf countries. Thousands are waiting to return. But there are no good plans to adjust them into the domestic workforce. Economists worry about an impending economic crisis.
Joblessness is already a big problem. According to Nepal Labor Migration Report 2020 prepared by the Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Security, there are approximately 756,000 working-age returnee migrant workers in the country. Likewise, Nepal Labor Force Survey 2017/18 shows only 42.8 percent of returnee migrants are employed; another 13.4 percent are unemployed, while 43.8 percent are out of the labor force.
The government keeps asking Nepali youths to employ their skills and labor in their own country. But it has persistently failed to bring effective policies, let alone implement them, to keep them home. Upreti, the Japan-returnee, says: “The government came up with a policy to give loans to the youths against educational certificates. But the policy is confined to the paper. You can’t imagine the tedious documentation and the many hassles getting this loan entails.”
Bhattarai, the UAE-returnee, says he is tired of listening to government promises. “The announcements of discounts, loans, and tax exemptions are all useless talks,” he says.
Poudel, the Qatar-returnee, complains of high government fees even to register agriculture-related businesses. “How does it then expect to attract the youth to this sector?” he asks.
Often, the migrant workers express their wish to return to Nepal and start a business. The government also keeps urging them to come. But when they return, they have to confront unfriendly policies and corrupt officials.
Siddhartha Gautam from Nepalgunj, Banke, abandoned his Europe plans earlier this year, even though he already had a visa to Poland. Rather, he decided to start a poultry and fish farm at home. Then Covid-19 struck.
His enthusiasm is fading fast. “I see nothing good being done to revive agriculture, which is supposedly a government priority,” he rues. With or without the lockdown, Gautam reckons those in agriculture will continue to struggle for their livelihood without greater state support.