The dreamer 

Chakra Bir Gurung

For the past three generations of landed upper-class Gurung in the village of Nalma, central Nepal, migration has been something of a status symbol. From the mid-19th century onward, the most revered thing one could do was to serve in the British army abroad, a concept known as Lahore. Even today, Lahore is held in higher regard than education.

But now, as 33-year-old Chakra Bir Gurung explains, the migration hierarchy has expanded. Lahore still holds the top rung, but there are a host of other options for those in the Gurung class that fall just below it, from getting a student visa to Australia or the United States, to finding work in Gulf countries. The option of finding work overseas is also open to the lower-class Dalit, but the prestige for Gurung still holds as they tend to find work with better wages.

Chakra hopes to go to Portugal, which he believes holds a brighter future than the Gulf states where Dalits from Nalma typically go. “From what I hear, if you take your family [to Europe], it will be better later on,” he says. “If you are away, and your family is here, then it is painful. Plus, in my context, I finished [school] and then struggled to find a job here. In European culture, once you have your family there, my child will not have to struggle as I did.”

Chakra previously tried, unsuccessfully, to move to New Zealand. Now, he’s one of only a few people his age left in Nalma. “In the village, only Dalits of my age will be found,” he says. “But even their numbers are decreasing. There is a tradition here of giving out loans to others, and so they can afford to go and work overseas.”

He bemoans the fact that the Dalits’ migration has led to more land in Nalma going unattended. Without a laboring class to tend it, the Gurungs’ land is going barren—Dalits’ land is also barren, and Chakra’s own piece of land is barren. He says that couples who stay behind are able to manage their land together, as can those with parents still young enough to help, but otherwise, it’s too much work to keep the land fruitful.

There is a slow agricultural revolution happening in the village, to some extent

Chakra Bir Gurung

“Youth are the power house. For instance, we plant paddy, but then in December, we face so many problems related to storing the rice because it cannot be done by women. Youth are needed for that.”

This also goes for village development. Recently, young people in the village helped construct a couple of roads in the area to transport agricultural products, but before that, the three youth clubs in the village hadn’t been up to much.

“Compared to other places, the youth here is not active in village development activities. For instance, in the forest, if there is a need to plant forest products, the elderly cannot do it. They provide directions and supervision, but it’s the youth who actually do the work.”

The question is then raised: does the money sent back by young people working overseas make up for their absence in other ways?

“The money is being spent properly,” he says. “For instance, we established a football field close to the school, and 70 to 75 percent of the contributions for that came from overseas.” Other funds have been invested in growing cardamom to export, as well as in clean water.

For most families though, wages are first spent on education, which often sees village women move with their children to Kathmandu or Pokhara while their husbands are gone to gain access to better schools. This, of course, only furthers migration issues.

Chakra thinks that the youth will stay in the village if the old ways are changed. Chakra says increasing local wages for Dalits could help, as Nalma’s set wage of USD 2 per day for field work is lower than that of other villages, though it does include a lunchtime

The elderly Gurungs have set up an ‘improvement committee’, which determines all aspects of village life. They have kept the wages artificially low, and are unwilling to increase it. With better prospects for earning overseas, young men are less willing to stay in the village under the same terms and conditions.

“There is a slow agricultural revolution happening in the village, to some extent. The previous generation was very firm about what they planted—where millet is grown, where paddy is grown. But the current youth, even myself, has planted cash crops that will earn us an income. The previous generation is resisting. Until they are replaced by the new generation, the migration will continue. But as we take charge, I think the migration rates will reduce.”

In the meantime, though, he still dreams of Portugal.

   Chakra Bir Gurung, one of the few men his age still in the village of Nalma, at home with his wife and son. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi
   Chakra Bir Gurung prepares to go down to the vegetable garden with his son. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi
   Chakra Bir Gurung in Nalma CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi

The progressive

Rabindra Gurung

Rabindra is not the person one would expect to be remaining in Nalma by choice. Growing up, his parents ran a guesthouse frequented by hikers on the Annapurna Circuit, exposing him to other languages and cultures from a young age. He listened to travelers’ stories about different economies, cultures, lifestyles. He perfected his English and made international friends who wanted to reciprocate his family’s hospitality and host him at their homes abroad.

And so he went. He went to Singapore and India, France and Spain. He regards himself as being influenced by Western philosophy. He speaks eloquently about the artificial rise of land prices in Kathmandu; the absurdity of Gulf country companies turning profits on entirely import-based supply chains, like Nepalese labor being flown in to work on the world’s biggest cattle farm made of imported grass in the middle of the Saudi desert. He sees cultural deterioration being spawned by globalization and the media, pushing everyone in the same direction.

But get him talking about Nalma, and it’s clear why he’s still here.

“Look around here, how beautiful it is,” he says. “8,000-meter-high mountains to the north. Even in the winter, we have a beautiful sunrise, sunset. We have space, rich resources, water. If we look at the nature and realize how blessed we have been, it can give us so much back.

“Last year, I was in Europe. Even there, the villages are dying. Schools are closing, and only old people are left on the big farms. All those of the young generation prefer to locate to cities like Paris and Madrid. It is a global trend. So who is going to talk about the issues? The issues of society, village, country, culture? Young people like us are supposed to talk about it and take some action. That is why I found that my need is here in my village.”

He began thinking of what could help incentivize more young people to stay in Nalma, what the village lacked that he could give it. The answer, he found, was education.

I feel that my village is dying, my culture is dying, because of migration

Rabindra Gurung

“Lots of youngsters from my village prefer to move to cities for their higher education, but I wanted to do something to preserve our local culture, our village, our language. In rural areas like Nalma, there are very few English medium schools, so I had the idea to start a school. Private schools are profit-oriented, so I like to say that it’s a community-based school instead.”

While preserving Nalma’s culture is the foundational cause and hopeful effect, his school seeks to achieve this by creating more sustainable economic solutions for the village and its future. As such, one of the main components of the school is a permaculture garden where Rabindra and his students toy with different crops, like coffee, that could provide an income.

“This is the perfect place to grow a variety of fruits and herbs,” he says. “We have huge potential for farming and agro-tourism, ecological tourism, cultural tourism. We can do a lot here to create opportunities.”

He’s well aware that this is, quite literally, a slow-growth approach to changing the face of Nalma’s future. It requires creativity and patience, whereas jobs abroad tempt with fast cash and quick solutions. But Rabindra sees these as just illusions of a better life.

Abroad, Nepalese face low wages and innumerable hurdles—language barriers, lack of support systems—and the industries in which they work are often of a temporary nature, such as the cattle farm in the desert, or extracting finite resources like oil and gas. Sustainable sources of income in Nalma are a better long-term solution.

“I feel that my village is dying, my culture is dying, because of migration. But I am sure that with a few young people doing projects like mine, if we can prove that we can do something great in Nalma, I am sure a lot of young people will be inspired and ready to do something here. And live a happy life.”

   Rabindra Gurung inspects a coffee plant in a cultivation area in Nalma. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi
   Rabindra Gurung teaches students in the private school he owns in Nalma. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi
   Rabindra Gurung is one of the few young men in Nalma not tempted to look for jobs abroad, instead choosing to stay and work in his hometown. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi

The returnee

Bais Bahadur B.K., Dalit

“It is us who are fools who leave the village,” says Bais Bahadur B.K. By all accounts, he learned this lesson the hard way.

With seven children and a wife of 21 years whom he had married for love, Bahadur had every reason to feel confident that his move abroad to Saudi Arabia was a financially wise choice for his family.

For two years he worked as a plumber, earning more than USD 540 per month—sometimes close to USD 775, if overtime was generous. What’s more, the work was less taxing than toiling in the fields back in Nalma.

“Here, we earn our livelihoods through our hands and our feet,” he says. “There, we worked with machinery and electricity. Let’s say the work was easier.”

He was employed by a company that was considered to be good, and provided him with housing. It still implemented a host of stringent orders, such as cutting salaries for any manner of rule-breaking and striking off five days of pay in retribution for one day missed, but these conditions were considered by Bahadur to be par for the course for migrant workers.

All was going well until the news came, six months into his time abroad, that his wife back in Nalma had eloped with someone else and abandoned the household. Under a strict contract, Bahadur had no way to get back home, forcing his family’s neighbors to care for his children in the meantime.

“What can I say? I don’t know if bad luck had befallen her, or she had lost her way. But you cannot go after the one who has become spoiled.”

As soon as his contract was over, Bahadur returned to his family. His house was a mess, and all of the money he had sent back—more than USD 5,500—was gone. He was back to square one.

It was ironically from this experience that Bahadur came to appreciate the value of his home life in Nalma over that of a salary abroad. Three weeks after his return, he remarried a bride 10 years his junior and took up work as a carpenter in the dry seasons and a field-laborer in the monsoon seasons. He makes about half of the amount he made abroad, but it is enough to feed and clothe his children; enough to make ends meet.

[In Nepal,] you can sit in front of your family and eat. Even if you work hard the whole day, in the evening there is happiness and satisfaction

Bais Bahadur B.K.

Bidesh [“abroad”] is a hard place. The only thing is that the money is a bit better there. But in terms of facilities, Nepal is better. You can sit in front of your family and eat. Even if you work hard the whole day, in the evening there is happiness and satisfaction.”

Bahadur is also quick to say that he, too, was “spoiled” in running after money, and was a contributor to the spoiling of Nalma’s land due to the lack of workers. “The barren land must be cursing us,” he says. “The land used to sustain us. We used to farm and eat the crops. We used to graze our livestock. Now, the same land is fallow.”

He does not wish to go back abroad, though he will if it ever again becomes the only way to provide basic necessities for his children. But that is unlikely. His children are getting older, and he has faith in his country. He holds that by working as hard in Nepal as one would abroad, similar achievements can be found back home.

But for all his newfound enthusiasm for family life and optimism that success in Nalma is possible, it’s difficult to say what will happen in the future.

“I have been thinking about it, what to do next for the children. I have now entered old age. I am thinking of trying to send my sons abroad.”

   Bais Bahadur B.K. started a new family after returning from work abroad. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi
   Bais Bahadur B.K.'s daughter with his second wife. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi
   After spending some time working abroad, Bais Bahadur B.K. now chooses to stay home in Nalma with his family. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi

This research was conducted in collaboration with Forest Action Nepal.

For more information on this topic, please contact Bimbika Sijapati Basnett at
This research was supported by UK aid from the UK government.
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