A Reflection from Nepal: A Path to Engage Returning Migrants in Agriculture?
Nepal has witnessed a significant increase in the number of people leaving to work abroad during the past 15 years, especially in Middle Eastern countries. Most analysts agree that this trend has occurred due to a lack of in-country employment opportunities. The vast majority of those taking positions in other nations are unskilled young males. However, recent evidence, as of mid-August 2020, has suggested that nearly 50,000 of these economic migrants have returned to Nepal since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 (DCnepal, 2020). This figure is roughly 7% of approximately 700,000 migrants from overseas expected to return to Nepal by mid-2021 . They are disproportionally returning due to a loss or perceived fear of a loss of employment and/or fear of COVID-19 infection in their host countries (Nepal Policy Institute & Migration Lab, 2020). In addition to this group of individuals displaced from their previous employ in the Middle East, thousands of undocumented workers have returned to their farming villages from Nepal’s cities and neighboring countries, mainly India, during the ongoing pandemic. I learned from multiple sources (news and social media, and communication with my relatives and friends in Nepal) that the largest number of those returning have become involved in farming as their major activity. This development motivated me to explore potential strategies that might allow them to earn livelihoods sufficient to permit them to remain as farmers in Nepal following the pandemic. Put differently, I here examine potential strategies that the Government of Nepal could undertake to support returned migrants now engaged in agricultural production or working in allied sectors. To realize this aim, I have reviewed relevant recent scholarly articles, newspaper accounts and recorded interviews with agriculture experts. I conclude by sharing my personal reflections on the significant challenge to the Nepali economy that the pandemic and its associated return of migrant workers have posed.
Impacts of Out-migration for Agriculture
In 2018, Nepal’s residents received $8.1 billion in remittances from friends and relatives working outside the nation. That total qualified the country as the 19th largest recipient of such transfers in the world (Prasain, 2019). Overall, the nation has the fifth-most remittance-dependent economy internationally after Tonga, Kyrgyzstan, Haiti and Tajikistan (Gill, 2020). Remittances contributed 26.2 percent of Nepal’s GDP for fiscal year 2018/2019 (Government of Nepal, 2019). In fact, such payments constitute the second largest contributor to the nation’s economy after agriculture. Such payments not only comprise an important portion of the country’s GDP, but they are also especially significant to its many vulnerable households. Nepali agriculture is characterized by smallholder subsistence farming, both crops and livestock, with 0.5 hectares (approximately 1.2 acres) of land per family (FAO, 2020).
The increasing out-migration of young, unskilled Nepali men seeking work in other countries during the past 15 years has created a shortage of farm labor. As a result, nearly one-third of the nation’s cultivatable land now lies fallow throughout the year (GC, 2020). This trend of abandonment of otherwise arable property is continuing as this is written (Timilsina and Ghimire, 2020). In addition, a share of fertile parcels of land are increasingly being developed for housing. The confluence of these factors has led Nepal to suffer a loss in national agricultural production during the last 15 years, resulting in a high and increasing volume of food imports from India and China especially. In addition to these trends, previous studies have found that women’s participation in agriculture, especially in small farm activities, has sharply increased as young males have left the country in search of employment (Spangler and Christie, 2019; FAO, 2020). Some researchers have dubbed this development the “feminization of agriculture” in the nation (FAO, 2020). Women are now significantly involved in both the daily tasks of agricultural production (mostly home garden vegetables and small livestock) and in decision-making concerning those efforts. Male out-migration created an imperative for family members to restructure their roles in the household and in community (Spangler and Christie, 2019). As a result, women’s involvement in local development decision-making processes has risen sharply as well, especially during the last 10 years.
Despite increased female involvement in homestead farming, the labor shortage created by the large-scale economic migration of young men has limited major farming activities, including cereal (rice, wheat and maize) crop production, mostly on Khet land . In this context, several studies have explored the relationships between remittances and farm production. For instance, a study by the Asian Development Bank reported that agricultural productivity for remittance-receiving farm families in Nepal has suffered, due to insufficient availability of farm labor and a lack of investment of that income in production (Tuladhar, 2014). GC (2019) conducted a study of 202 subsistence farming families in the middle Western hills of Nepal and found similarly that “the odds/ possibility of a household being in the high production income group (relative to the low group) decrease[d] by 1.1 times when a household received a remittance.” 
Pant et al. (2013) have found that, overall, labor out-migration has also negatively affected overall agricultural yields in Nepal. In other words, the nation’s reduced rural labor force has contributed to a decrease in the overall agricultural production of the nation. The combination of remittance dependence and a diminished work force implies that the returning laborers (the source of a significant share of remittances) will likely stimulate increased agricultural activity.
COVID-19 as an Opportunity to Engage Returning Migrants in Farm Production
I learned from recent communications with relatives and friends residing in different rural parts of Nepal that nearly half of those who have returned to the country from employment they had previously pursued abroad are now working on farms. This trend can at least ensure that these individuals can produce enough food to feed themselves and their families. In a similar vein, a recent article by Kaine (2020) in myRepublica suggested that “Reverse migration of youth due to COVID-19 provides an opportunity for [the] hinterland to engage the returnees in farming.” In this spirit, Yamuna Ghale, a well-known Nepali agriculture and food security expert, suggested in a recent television interview that the nation’s Government could involve returning individuals in agricultural infrastructure development, service provision, research and extension activities and food processing work. She emphasized the possibility that agricultural processing and small-scale farm enterprises can provide immediate employment. Such activities could include ghee (a type of butter) and cheese production, flour milling and drying herbs and fruits. Returnees could also be engaged as farm machinery operators and agricultural equipment maintenance technicians (FAO, 2020). Ghale (2020) also contended that the Government should have a concrete plan to encourage, and thereafter, to oversee these activities, once launched. She stressed that Nepal’s national government should focus on protecting farmers through multiple forms of support so as to maximize the probability that returning migrants will view farming as a profitable and respected profession. In this context, agricultural development practitioners and analysts have proposed several immediate and longer-term strategies to support those who are returning and interested in engaging in farming. I turn to those next.
Ghale (2020) has emphasized that the Government could provide educational training for agriculture as individuals return to the country and are placed in quarantine prior to journeying to their home communities. While cash strapped as a result of the pandemic, local governments (LGs) could provide returning residents seeds and small tools to support their farming activities. LGs could also offer those individuals professional advice and services via qualified crop and livestock technicians. A share of those experts could “train trainers” who could thereafter share strategies and information with other returning migrants. Kaine (2020) has proposed at least one agriculture and livestock technician should be made available per ward (the smallest administrative unit of LGs) to ensure effective service reach and provision. In addition, LGs could also invite nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with allied goals to share their technical personnel and expertise with newly returned laborers. Ghale (2020) has similarly suggested that Nepal’s federal and state governments should provide skilled support to LG officials. Such assistance could include recommending appropriate crop choices and varieties to match the specific needs and possible markets of growers. Additionally, the federal government’s research institutions, such as the Nepal Agricultural Research Council, and universities could organize virtual learning platforms to share their expertise with LG representatives and private sector agricultural suppliers.
Long Term Strategies
During the past several years, Nepal’s public, national and international NGOs and private sector agricultural development professionals have been arguing that the national government should play a lead role in providing sufficient land to support landless or near landless people interested in engaging in farming. In response, the federal government recently announced a plan to establish a “Land Bank,” beginning in September 2020, with branches in 300 LGs (of a total of 753) in the country. Janakraj Raj Joshi, the spokesperson for Nepal’s Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation, has suggested that his agency is preparing to establish the entity to ensure access to land for returnees, particularly (Barakhari, 2020). The branch offices will seek to target land for use that has not been cultivated for several years and can be planted for commercial production. Even without federal action, the LGs could facilitate agreements with landholders to make land available to landless individuals interested in production. Access to low-interest credit, irrigation facilities, farm technologies and agricultural markets and extension services could also materially assist growers, both during start-up and in later efforts to scale-up production (Kaini, 2020; GC, 2020). Timilsina and Ghimire (2020) have recommended that the national government set minimum support prices for agricultural products so that farmers located in more isolated areas can sell their produce at rates comparable to those available in towns. At the same time, it will also be important to make the services of locally based input suppliers and veterinary centers accessible to newly engaged growers. Investments in cold storage facilities may also prove important to prevent distress sales and potential losses due to unforeseen disturbances in market chains.
Most smallholder farmers are unlikely to take production risks without effective Government sponsored crop and livestock insurance services (GC, 2020). So, the nation should also offer that support. Likewise, LGs and interested I/NGOs must train returning individuals entering farming to grow diverse products to maximize potential returns. Taken together, these strategies appear to be central to address both current and future production needs (FAO, 2020). Overall, too, government officials at all levels should encourage start-up growers to begin farming in a way that fits their needs and resources. Growers should produce value-adding crops and goods (vegetables) and non-traditional agricultural enterprises (dry and frozen meats, cheeses, ghee, jams and jellies, flour and gundruk (fermented and dried green leafy vegetables) to maximize their potential returns.
As an aware individual from a Nepali rural farming family and a researcher interested in smallholder agriculture policy, I believe that returning migrants do have an opportunity to succeed as producers if profits from their farm production can be made sufficient to meet their family needs. The pandemic has rightly placed a spotlight on this imperative and the national government should act swiftly to mobilize returning migrants in efforts to construct a more productive rural economy. Notably, most of those coming back to Nepal are from vulnerable families (low income, lower caste or other oppressed groups) and they often possess only limited land and financial resources. The Government should prioritize these members of these groups as it develops support programs of the sort outlined above. In the long run, it will be important to ensure that the other basic needs of these farming communities, including education and healthcare, are met alongside agricultural services.
While Nepal’s agriculture sector has suffered from rising out-migration of young men during the past 15-years, the proposed short-term and long-term strategies, sketched here, if implemented, could provide a way to engage returning migrants in the agricultural sector and assist them in becoming viable commercial producers. Governments at all levels in Nepal must develop and implement concrete action plans to realize this aim, which will also require the sustained collective effort of I/NGOs, private sector businesses and farmer cooperatives as well as other interested actors.
 A task force formed by the Nepalese government to study the impact of COVID-19 on foreign employment of the country’s citizens projected that more than 700,000 such individuals will return to Nepal from oversees during the next year (i.e., until the middle of 2021) (Shrestha, 2020). Of the total of 700,000 migrants, approximately 300,000 are expected to return from India and the remainder from other nations (mainly in the Middle East) (Shrestha, 2020). The task force also projected that 225,000 of the expected total group returning are likely to arrive in Nepal in the next 3-4 months (Shrestha, 2020). As noted, approximately 50,000 of this total (225,000) have already returned since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak (DCnepal, 2020). The largest share of those who have arrived in Nepal to date were employed in Middle Eastern countries.
 Khet refers to low-lying irrigated land outside communities, used for a rice-based cropping system.
 High group referred to the families whose income from production activities (mainly vegetables and livestock) was higher than the median income of families in their communities. Conversely, the low group included families whose production income was lower than the median income in their jurisdictions.
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Raj K. GC is a PhD candidate in the Planning, Governance and Globalization (PGG) program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Raj earned a Master of Science (MSc) degree in International Land and Water Management with a specialization in integrated water management from the Wageningen University in the Netherlands in 2010, where he served as a Netherlands Fellowship Program Fellow. He obtained a Bachelor's degree in Agricultural Engineering from the Trubhuvan University of Nepal in 2005. His doctoral research focuses on the productive use of rural water systems, related policy issues and sustainability concerns. Raj is passionate about bringing positive and sustained social and economic change to Nepal’s rural communities through a rights-based approach to development.
September 17, 2020