Dhan Bahadur Tamang beams with satisfaction when he describes the development work happening in his village. Bhotekhola, a sparse hill settlement in northeastern Chitwan, just 8 km away from the Mahendra Highway, will soon be linked to the highway by an unmetalled road. Most households in Bhotekhola have taps with water supply round the clock. Electricity arrived a few years back. The village’s public school has better facilities than before and more teachers now. There is a primary health centre nearby. Bhotekola’s transformation might not seem like much, but the progress it has achieved is a dream come true for villagers in this traditional Chepang stronghold.
“We had to spend hours every day fetching water from the streams or the river. A lot has happened in recent years,” says Dhan Bahadur.
However, Dhan Bahadur feels that it will take much more than basic infrastructure to save his dying village, which has been neglected by the state for generations. In recent decades, Bhotekhola has seen waves of its youths migrating within and outside of Nepal—in search of greener pastures and better facilities. Everybody wants to migrate, temporarily or permanently, for their own reasons. The well-off families want to migrate to have a better, more comfortable life. The poor want to migrate because there is not enough work in the village to eke out a living. The new parents want to migrate because they want better schooling for their kids. The young want to migrate because there aren’t enough opportunities for earning and personal growth. The village has become somewhat of a transit point for people who want to move to Nepali towns and cities and abroad.
Dhan Bahadur’s own family—with his six children and several grandchildren—once lived as an extended one in his village.
“Now, it’s mostly just me and my wife,” says Dhan Bahadur.
Bhotekhola’s story is one that gets played out across Nepal, where every next village, especially in the hilly and mountainous belt, is gradually becoming a ghost town, as people abandon their villages to avoid lives of hardship and scarcity. Be it Ramaroshan in Achham or Nishikhola in Baglung or Shermanthang in Helambu or Chichilla in Sankhuwasabha, each place is struggling to retain its population.
The dearth of reliable data makes it hard to ascertain the severity of the problem. But the national population census 2011 showed that some villages in the hills and in the mountainous belt in eastern and western Nepal had lost up to 50 percent of their population over the span of four decades; the Terai belt, on the other hand, had seen a substantial increase in population. It can be surmised that the problem is far worse, as a lot of internal migrants tend to retain the land and citizenship certificates of their village although they have moved to towns and cities.
Besides migrating from the hills to the plains, people also tend to migrate within Nepal’s districts—mainly to towns or the district headquarters—and to cities. Many others migrate to neighbouring districts that offer better services and facilities.
Lack of research makes it difficult to decode the patterns of internal migration, and the factors driving internal migration remain largely undocumeted. But it’s a known fact that many families in the hills migrate to escape the lack of opportunities back home, while a few others do so for better health, education, and livelihood options. Those who choose to stay back are usually involved in subsistence farming.
More than half of the total households in the country have at least one family member working abroad. Research shows that most of these families invest their foreign employment savings in buying real estate, apart from using it on education, health care, and other basic needs.
Once known for their population size and vibrant culture, the hills, especially in the underdeveloped regions, have seen an unchecked exodus of millions of people through the Rana period to Panchayat to Republic. Despite the huge impact that migration has had on the nation’s economy and growth, policymakers have paid little attention to make hills attractive for settlers. Some efforts made in the past—including the construction of a midhill highway to develop new cities across the mid-hills—have largely failed in discouraging migration.
The cost of unplanned migration has been huge in every respect. Much of the hill region has emptied over the years, with its vast lands left barren, while the Terai plains have lost a significant chunk of agricultural land due to the growing settlements of new migrants from the mid-hills. The disproportionate population distribution is adversely affecting the country’s overall growth. Some areas have prospered over just a few decades, whereas the once-prosperous mid-hill belt is becoming poorer. The price of real estate, for instance, has skyrocketed in the Terai and cities, while nobody is buying land in the hills. Similarly, the forest areas and public places near the big cities have been replaced by shanty towns of people who could have contributed to developing their villages had the state ensured basic necessities.
These migrations have also had a huge social cost, especially on elderly people like Dhan Bahadur. He and his wife, both in their 80s, have to wait for festivals to meet all their family members. Dhan Maya, Dhan Bahadur’s wife, laments about how the fruits in their garden have been going to waste when they could have been eaten by her children.
Dhan Bahadur, however, still remains hopeful that things will be different if development activities continue in the future. Like many others, he has pinned his hopes on the local bodies and representatives. He thinks that people will stay back in their village if they at least have better employment opportunities and access to basic facilities like good health care and education.
“Things are much better than it was a few decades ago. But more needs to be done,” he says.