By Ashis Biswas
There has been a noticeable increase in illegal immigration from Nepal into parts of India in recent months owing to the continuing economic crisis in the former Himalayan kingdom. Concern has been expressed recently in the North Bengal-based mass media about an influx of unemployed migrant Nepali youths taking up temporary odd jobs in local tea gardens, fuelling labour tensions.
Nepalese authorities have been trying hard in the post Covid period to rev up the economy. The number of tourist arrivals has gone up steadily .The outlook has improved somewhat for the tourism sector and related activities.
But the deep post covid 19 Pandemic economic downturn continues. Reports from Kathmandu confirm that fresh job creation still remains a major challenge for the Government. Nepalese officials admit that there is a steady exodus of aspirant educated Nepali youths to India, West Asian countries, Malaysia, the EU countries among other destinations, of late.
For a country with a relatively small population of just over 30 million people, the diaspora of Nepali youths to other countries in recent times has been impressive in terms of size. Several factors have worked against the creation of new jobs in the long term for Nepal: there is little interest among foreign or even local investors to launch major manufacturing projects because of the small domestic market and the natural difficulties involved in setting up even small industries in the high hills. In addition, there are problems in the transportation of goods and the nature of climate.
No wonder even the normally flourishing tourism sector cannot be expected to accommodate hundreds of new job seekers, many of them educated, on an annual basis. Of late there has been some growth in the strong hydropower generation sector, but mass recruitments generally cease once a project is completed.
North Bengal papers published from Siliguri and other centres have quoted jobless Nepali migrants talking about the recent closure of a few manufacturing units and large shops in the jewellery and general merchandise sectors because of dwindling demand. Mostly jobless youths have been trying to secure informal work in the local tea plantations, where they also can find accommodation. Some are helped by their relatives already settled in the North Bengal towns for a time.
Such influx tends to push down the level of local wages which breeds resentment among local non Nepali workers. Local media reports suggest that some people also help the migrants secure Aadhaar card and other documents to avoid detection by the police and civic authorities.
There is an undercurrent of tension among non Nepali people regarding such emergent trends in the area, especially in the larger context of the simmering agitation for a Gorkhaland state.
In part the generally lackadaisical attitude of the Bengal government towards the problem of illegal infiltration, whether from Bangladesh or other countries, also contributes to a general worsening of the law and order in parts of North Bengal. Despite recent tensions between Nepal and India, vigil along the 1751 kilometre long international border remains slack.
Further, Bengal -based political parties regardless of affiliation have not really opposed the steady influx of Nepalis into Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Siliguri areas in recent times. Most of the Nepali agitators driven out by Bhutanese authorities some years ago for disturbing law and order , came over to settle down in Siliguri and nearby areas. At one stage, they staged daily demonstrations against GOI, urging upon Delhi to take up the question of their return to Bhutan!
No local political party spoke against such infiltration, because of consideration of vote bank politics. Instead, locals helped them in secure jobs and official documents to make their position more secure legally.
At least one HR group Janachetana, some years ago, reported on the changing demography of the region, referring to the growing Nepali influx. It also highlighted how migrants Nepalis had joined local political parties and assumed positions of importance in local civic bodies and government over the years.
According to sources, the increase in Nepali population in and around Darjeeling between 1951 and 2001 has been exceptionally high. The Nepali-speaking population increased by an whopping 875% during these decades, whereas India’s national population growth was around 284% only!
At present most Nepalis and Gorkhas live within the areas controlled by the autonomous Gorkha tribal organisations in North Bengal.
However, most Gorkha/Nepali groups have now rejected the Gorkha Territorial Authority (GTA) as an organisation representing their interests, although their community leaders had signed tripartite agreements with the state and central Governments some years ago to set it up in the first place. Once more, they are planning to revive the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state.
Such moves are nothing new. Just as now the GTA is being sabotaged, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) organisation that sponsored the Gorkha agitation for autonomy, had been initially supported and then rejected in favour of the GTA, by the more militant sections of Gorkha leadership, earlier.
Given the present stand taken by the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) towards the often violent Gorkhaland agitation and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) equivocation on the issue, there is no certainty that fresh violence may not return to the hills in the months ahead.
This is a major reason why the fresh influx from Nepal, unchecked so far, continues to raise concerns among major sections of Non-Nepali citizens ion North Bengal.
Incidentally, although Gorkha/Nepali agitationists usually claim Siliguri town and nearby areas as part of a new proposed Gorkha territory, the Nepali speaking population is only around 4.66% in those areas, whereas 25.24% of the people according to the 2011 census figures, are Hindi speakers and over 60% of the people declared themselves as Bengalis. (IPA Service)