Our notes count, but our votes don’t

During the 2017 election, overseas workers like myself consoled ourselves that in the next one, we would be eligible to vote. After all, the Constitution guarantees us the right.

Nepalis in Nepal are voting on 13 May in local polls, but once again we are not allowed to. Nor can we cast our ballots in general elections later this year. We may not be allowed to vote in the next polls in five years, either. 

I had recently engaged with fellow Nepalis in Qatar about what their expectations from the government back home regarding the upcoming elections were, and despite the Constitution guaranteeing the right to vote what they thought about being prevented from exercising it.

The sentiment among Nepalis was broadly similar. Not being allowed to vote means we do not have a say in matters that directly impact us or our families back home.

This is despite the Constitution guaranteeing us our rights and a subsequent 2018 Supreme Court order to the government to make all the necessary arrangements to ensure us our voting rights.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 1, Nepali Times

Many countries allow absentee voting, and if our leaders had been willing, Nepal’s embassies could be easily mobilised to facilitate it. But there is no interest, conversation or movement in that direction.

There should at least have been discussions on the how’s and why’s, and not the present demeaning radio silence. 

The lack of interest shows that it is not just the practical challenges to facilitate overseas voting that the government does not want to entertain, but also the principle of allowing us to vote.

At a time when frustration towards politics is at an all time high regardless of where Nepalis are based, it is a pity that those of us abroad cannot channel our frustration through the ballot box. 

Nomination filing is underway in Nepal, and candidates have started campaigning in an attempt to influence voters. Amidst the frenzy, despite being a significant chunk of the population, we are not in anyone’s radar. 

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 2, Nepali Times 

It seems as if we overseas Nepalis do not need to be influenced — not even with empty promises — which also means the issues that concern us do not get their due attention.

It is ironic how on the one hand, public discourse has been dominated by the upcoming election in which migrants are not given much consideration, while on the other hand, falling remittances sent by migrants has become an issue of grave public concern. 

Those in power are even calling on us to send money legally to help the country. Our notes count, but our votes don’t, as the saying goes.

The sole focus on remittances without a second thought for those sending money home is tragic. If the officials back home only understood that the two cannot be separated.

If they realise that remittances are indeed critical for our economy and gets nervous when there is a dip, why do they do nothing to ease the lives of the senders? 

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 3, Nepali Times

Instead, we are grossly inconvenienced by a system designed to make our lives difficult even before we migrate, during our time abroad, and when we return.

Worrying about falling remittances alone is not meaningful. Remittances are linked to both quality and quantity of the overseas jobs. Emphasis by the Nepal government on capturing well-paying, available jobs abroad is limited. Instead, even the lucrative jobs that could be channelled to Nepalis are lost because of our complex labour approval system.

Workers, for example, cannot take on assignments if the duration of the contract is less than two years under Nepal’s labour approval system, no matter their benefits. How many jobs have we lost to other countries because our approval system is so complicated and time consuming that employers would rather look elsewhere so they can fill the vacancies on time?

Has anyone compared how much more time it takes to deploy one worker from Nepal compared to other countries? These concerns are especially pronounced after the pandemic when many lost their jobs and returned, or many like me had to compromise on our salaries during the business downturn due to Covid-19.  

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 4, Nepali Times

There are many restrictions and hurdles for those of us who are overseas, and who send or carry money home. Amid concerns regarding illicit transfers of money or gold smuggling, it is us migrants who get scapegoated and punished. I cannot easily bring home gold for my sister’s wedding, or an iPhone for my wife without getting severely punished. 

Every few months there is a new boss who introduces a new set of rules regarding what we can and cannot bring to the country, many times without any sound reason, and we get penalised accordingly. The rules change and are confusing even for me as a journalist who keeps track of all these regularly as part of my profession. How are others expected to keep up?

I understand the concerns regarding illicit transfers that drive such decisions. But claiming to tackle these informal transfers by harassing migrant workers lets the real criminals off the hook. We workers get victimised even when we have nothing to do with  the smugglers, even while the problems at hand remain unaddressed.

Any action taken is just for show or a bare scratch on the surface. It is as if the broader message from the government to us is that we should toil hard in the desert heat day and night, and send money home — but we cannot decide how to use it.

Nepal’s remittances are falling. But have the leaders and those in power ever done anything concrete to better understand why people use the informal hundi channel to send money and what steps can be taken to compete with this transfer? 

Read also: The Qatar job mirage, Nepali Times

When both the commissions for transfer and exchange rate is better than formal rates, while being more convenient for both the sender and recipient who engage in phone transactions for home-based pick up and delivery of the amount, should we be surprised that many, especially those who earn very little and have very long working hours, should opt for this informal system of money transfer?

What has been done to ensure easy digital transfers of remittances? What has been done to reduce the cost of transfer of remittances? What incentives are there for a normal worker to opt for formal transfers?

It is just not about foreign employment or remittances, but issues that concern us as citizens being prevented from having a say in the elections. Even when we are disenfranchised from our voting rights, the election and state of affairs in Nepal remains an important part of our discourse and concern.

One overseas Nepali shared with me that being away makes him understand the importance of having good leaders and representatives for economic growth and development, which he got to witness directly in ways that one may not have had a chance to back in Nepal.

Another said that not being able to vote despite being on the voters list is a wasted opportunity to influence election outcomes and choose strong candidates. We are instead relegated to just sending remittances for our incompetent leaders to waste, they added.

Read also: Fate joins, then separates, siblings, Anil Shrestha

We sit here in a foreign land and helplessly watch our family members back home being repeatedly failed by our leaders. The election is also tied to our own futures back home. Many of us were compelled to migrate even for very low paying jobs with very little reward because of the government’s inability to provide jobs back home.

One of my colleagues who has been in Qatar for the last 25 years has never once voted, and there is nothing he can do about it. 

I cannot speak for all, but for us sweating in the Gulf, our ultimate destination is always Nepal. We may stretch our employment until either our employers or our bodies allow it, but we will all come home eventually. 

However, the decision to return is never easy. What will we come back to, especially as returnees who could be potential entrepreneurs or jobseekers?

When I talk to my colleagues here from the Philippines, it is evident how their government recognises their value, not just in words but in action.  

She shared how she recently cast her ballot for elections in the Philippines from Qatar. This makes me question: Would they care more about the senders and not just what is sent if we had the provision to exercise our constitutional right to vote? 

I am afraid we will not find the answer during this year’s election cycle either.   

Read more:

Between home and the deep blue sea, Prakash Gurung

Power of workers working together, Madhusudhan Ojha

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