It is just before midnight at Kathmandu airport. Hira Dhakal is waiting for a coffin to arrive on the flight from Kuala Lumpur. Dhakal is one of the delivery men for bodies of deceased migrant workers, and this is the 73rd casket this month.
Tonight, it is a young man from Bara who had an easy desk job in Malaysia, but died in his sleep like hundreds of other Nepalis who die of ‘natural’ causes there.
Some forlorn family members are at the airport parking lot to receive the body. Dhakal loads the coffin silently with a practiced hand on top of the van that one of his employees will drive down to Bara overnight.He does not linger, and does not talk to the relatives.
Dhakal owns R K Dhuwani, one of the four coffin delivery services contracted by the Foreign Employment Promotion Board (FEPB) to transport migrant workers to their homes free of charge. The four companies have divided up Nepal’s 72 districts among themselves.
Dhakal has lost count of the number of coffins he has received at the airport in the past few years since his company was hired. Malaysia had the highest number of fatalities of Nepali migrant workers, with 425 dying from July 2014 to July 2015. Most died of sudden death syndrome in their sleep. Qatar, which also has about 550,000 Nepalis workers, registered 175 deaths in the same period
In contrast to the eerie silence in which the body is loaded at
Kathmandu airport, Dhakal knows that when it arrives in Bara there will be wailing and commotion.
“In the Tarai people from surrounding villages all gather to receive the bodies, and that is what will happen tomorrow morning in Bara,” says Dhakal, as the van drives off. He says the intensity of mourning varies depending on whether it is the hills or the Tarai, or on how much time has elapsed since the death.
“Sometimes the coffins arrive soon after death, and the families are still dealing with the shock,” he explains, “but at other times there are long delays in bringing the bodies home and the families have usually made peace with their loss.”
Dhakal recently delivered to a village in Mahottari the remains of a migrant worker who had died nearly two years ago, and says the mourning was much more subdued.
Whether at midnight or in the early morning, employees of the four delivery companies are always on call at the airport. Occasionally several coffins arrive on the same flight from the Gulf or Malaysia, and they have to scramble to arrange vehicles and drivers. On average, three to four coffins arrive every day at Kathmandu airport.
“After a while, they just become boxes to deliver,” says a matter-of-fact Purna Bahadur Jung, owner of Seti Gandesh Dhuwani. The drivers and their helpers try not to get too attached to the families, because the job then becomes too stressful and emotionally fraught.
Every plywood box with ‘Fragile’ and ‘This Side Up’ stickers bears the tale of a tragic reality of shattered dreams, personal sacrifice, grieving families, and the desperation back home that drove the workers
Invariably, there are family members who find solace in talking about their loved ones. But Jung says he and his colleagues have little to offer in return, except a few words of consolation as they transport the bodies.
“Sometimes, we have to be a bit stern in dealing with grieving family members, they get very emotional and this can distract me from concentrating on mountain roads at night,” says Jung. He remembers a widow who wept continuously all the way from Kathmandu to Saptari,
and fainted en route. After ensuring that she was all right, he had to ask her to either keep her composure or transfer to another vehicle as a safety precaution, after which she calmed down.
Sunil Bhandari of Mani Lekh Supplies, another coffin delivery company, says there is a story of one deceased migrant worker that he will never forget. Family members, including the widow, travelled in a separate vehicle from his coffin van and reached Udayapur before him.
“When I reached their house, the wife was lying unconscious on the floor after having consumed poison,” Bhandari recalls. He rushed her to hospital, but she did not live.
Death keeps no calendar. While missing festivals and family events is routine for the delivery companies, it is the strikes in Nepal that make the job difficult. Bhandari says the worst time was during the Indian blockade. Once, he had to deliver a body to Jhapa by buying fuel in the black market, and his vehicle carrying a coffin got smashed in Saptari.
Says Bhandari: “This is an essential service, we have to get the bodies home, and cannot let such events deter us.”
Economy class, Dewan Rai
Illegal, ill-treated, Om Astha Rai
Killed in the line of duty, Om Astha Rai
Dying to work in Malaysia, Sonia Awale
Sudden death, Pete Pattison
Man Bahadur Limbu went to Malaysia in 2002, hoping to escape poverty and war. He worked in a factory for four years and was allowed to visit his family only once, in 2004.
He endured the burden of a loan, inhuman working conditions and separation from family. Man Bahadur, a fifth-grade dropout, ploughed his savings into education for his children so that they would never have to suffer what he did as a migrant worker.
However, his 20-year-old son Prakash Limbu also dropped out of school in Grade 9, and went to Malaysia last year. Like his father, he is now working in a factory on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
“My father worked abroad for years, but he could not earn enough,” says Prakash. “I decided to leave home so my little brothers could study.”
With his savings, Man Bahadur built a stone and mud house in Nangin village of Panchthar district in the eastern mountains. With no more money left, he migrated again in 2008, this time to Saudi Arabia as a cleaner.
Most of the money he sent home was spent on food and clothes for his family, and paying children’s school fees. When he returned after five years, he had only Rs 50,000 saved up.
When Prakash decided to go abroad, Man Bahadur did not even have the money to pay for his visa and ticket for Malaysia. They took a loan of Rs 155,000, but even though the recruiting agency had promised Prakash a monthly salary of Rs 38,000, he is earning merely Rs 29,000.
Prakash sends home money every four months for his parents, his wife who lives with her parents, and their two-year-old daughter. Now, his younger brother, 17-year-old Khagendra, who also dropped out of school, is applying for a passport so he can also leave.
Man Bahadur is now 40, and is himself planning to work overseas for the third time. “This time, I will try to save more money,” he said.
His wife Phul Maya is not happy, she is trying to persuade her husband and sons to stay back and help with farming. “Neither my husband nor my son listens to me,” she says. “If they both leave I will not be able to work the fields by myself.”
Like Man Bahadur, most migrant workers who experience the hardships of overseas work do not want their children to suffer the same fate.
Sociologist Ganesh Gurung says there are two factors that perpetuate this cycle of migration. The biggest chunk of remittance is spent for daily consumption such as food and clothes, and most migrant workers fail to invest their money or start their own businesses. Second, family dynamics change when the head of the household leaves home to work abroad for years: the children drop out of school and follow their father’s footsteps, as in the case of the Limbu family.
In 2010, Nepal Rastra Bank began issuing foreign employment bonds to encourage migrant workers to invest their money in development projects in Nepal. But few workers have taken up this opportunity.
Last year, the government set up Remit Hydro Limited (RHL) to encourage migrant workers to invest their savings in two mid-sized hydropower projects. However, migrant workers may not trust a government-owned company.
“I am not hopeful, as migrant workers prefer to invest their money in land that they can own and sell,” says Gurung. Foreign employment bonds and RHL are great concepts, but they will take years to show results, he adds.
Despite being a potentially useful idea, the proposal to set up a Labour Bank to provide business start-up loans for migrant workers has hit a snag due to lack of a clear policy.
“We are preparing guidelines so returning migrant workers can turn entrepreneurs, and invest their savings,” says Labour Ministry spokesman, Govinda Mani Bhurtel.
Surveys have shown that nearly 80 per cent of the remittance is used in buying foods, clothes, home appliances and electronic items. Given the slow economic growth, the $6 billion in annual remittances plays an important role in propping up the national economy and reducing Nepal’s poverty rate, but does not contribute to development and job creation.
“Remittance alone cannot develop any country,” says economist Bhubanesh Pant, “we need to have a strategy to use remittance for development.”
Pant has three suggestions: promote remittance through legal channels, encourage migrant workers to hold savings in assets in Nepal itself, and to become entrepreneurs.
He warns: “If migrant workers continue like this and if the remittance economy suddenly collapses, Nepal will face a huge financial crisis.”