A young man from my village in Bhojpur—let us call him Laksha for his anonymity—has been looking for a job for 17 years now. Laksha started his quest at the age of 18. Now, 35, he is yet to find one.
A high school graduate, Laksha is handsome, genial, sturdy, smart but simple. He could not study further because his family could not afford it. He could not stay long in big cities chasing jobs for the same reason. But he has made several sterile trips to Kathmandu and other large cities and asked many for help, including me, in search of job. Laksha was ready to work anywhere in Nepal and to go to the Middle East or Malaysia, the main destinations for Nepali workers.
I spoke to a couple of friends whose offices had announced vacancies, but they already had their own candidates and a long list of supporters recommended by ministers and other political leaders. I approached some manpower agencies that sent workers abroad. They could, they told me, send Laksha if he was able the pay at least Rs 60,000 for a low-paying work in the Middle East, too much for Laksha.
Failing to find a job for him, I advised him to try Public Service Commission vacancies. Since he could not afford to live in Kathmandu or Dhankuta, he missed most of the deadlines for application. When he did apply, he did not have the materials and coaching to win the fierce competition for a few posts. I tried to help him even after I left for New York but could not, for the job situation was steadily worsening.
Now married and a father, Laksha continues his quest for a job. His only crime (if it can be called so) was his poverty and lack of political connections. Understandably, he is frustrated with himself and angry at the state. So are millions of his contemporaries—youth unemployment is above 40 percent in Nepal—sharing the same predicament. They are stuck in a groove of joblessness and poverty. Their productive capacities are being wasted. These people constitute the lion’s share of Nepal’s lost generation.
The Maoists recruited and exploited these angry and frustrated youth. These youth lost their innocence and education, and many even their lives. Those who survived the insurgency are now better off—some have joined the army and others have gone into voluntary retirement with a golden handshake. The government has announced to give two lakh rupees each even to the fake combatants disqualified by UNMIN.
But Laksha refused to join the Maoists. During the insurgency, local Maoists had taken him to their camps, but he left, for he did not appreciate their goal and means. He could have joined the ranks of fake combatants recruited by the Maoists to swell their numbers when the peace process was inked. But Laksha, a religious man, thought it was a wrong thing to do. Now he thinks, since only dishonesty pays in Nepal, he should have joined the grand fraud.
Laksha’s father says, Nepal has become hell for the young without political connection and money. Those who have strong political connections and the means to bribe politicians or to pay the exorbitant fee to manpower agencies find jobs at home and abroad. The Maoist outfits force development projects and private employers to hire their members. But the innocent and sincere youth with no such connections are left high and dry. Strangely, the government has a program for everyone but the youth.
For instance, politicians have lavished on all other groups perquisites and privileges—salaries, allowances, housing facility, vehicles, foreign trips and medical treatment, etc.—from government and opportunity to get rich quickly through corruption. Many bureaucrats enjoy similar opportunities. Businesses have shady government contracts, tax deductions, concessions on imports and incentives for exports. The old have the old-age allowance from government. The only program dedicated to the youth is education but state schools and colleges offer very poor education to prepare them for a productive life and career.
On the eve of elections, governments have announced programs to promote youth employment—to create jobs and to offer help for self-employment. Once the elections are over, these programs are forgotten until the next ballot becomes due in several years. Nepal imports everything. It could have established import-substitution industries and employed many youth. But it has not.
So, more than 2.5 million youth have gone abroad seeking mostly low-skill employment. These are the other chunk of Nepal’s lost generation. Virtually all of them have sold their property or borrowed money to pay the exorbitant fee charged by Nepali manpower agencies and their foreign collaborators. Though many of them are educated, these young people have been forced to take up menial jobs abroad for the lack of opportunities at home.
Worse still, exploitation, abuse and tragedies await them in host countries. Often they are not paid what was promised. Some return unable to endure inhospitable climates and abuse by their employers. Many die of diseases and dehydration in 50C heat. Young women are even more vulnerable. Unscrupulous agents promise them jobs but sell them to brothels. Employers abuse and rape many of those who go to work. Some of these victims return home with incurable diseases and babies born of rape to a life of social ostracization.
Those who can endure all this have to work 16/17 hours a day in hazardous conditions and save a few thousand rupees. Their savings often is not enough to repay the loan and pay for the skyrocketing costs of living for their family back home. Their families are broken and children are forced to grow with one parent. They come back home weak, diseased and prematurely old. All these young men and women could have contributed towards national growth if they had the opportunity to work in the country.
If our politicians and government had been committed, these youth could have found work in the country. Leaders brag about making Nepal Singapore or Switzerland to win elections. Once elected, they realize that objective only for themselves by fighting over posts and power and making personal fortunes. People and country come remote fourth in their priority—after personal benefits, extended family benefits, and party benefits. Currently, they are holding the country hostage—without a constitution, without a budget and without a way forward—for parochial advantage.
Development and prosperity require visionary leaders like Lee Kwan-yew, Deng Xiaoping and Mahathir Mohammad who worked honestly and tirelessly for people and inspired them to work equally hard. Under their leadership, Singapore, China and Malaysia respectively have transformed themselves in one generation. Even Moumoon Gayoom and Manmohan Singh have unlocked growth in the Maldives and India respectively. But Nepal is yet to produce such leaders.
Only a few leaders have vision, desire and capacity to become statesmen on their own. Others have to be forced to rise above their petty interests; people can do so by exercising their right to vote in democratic societies. But why are the Nepali people, particularly from the lost generation, so tolerant of their self-serving and predatory leaders? A frustrated friend of mine puts it thus, “You have to choose one from the stinking field of rotten candidates.”
That might be true. But until the Nepali people take charge, promote leaders who deliver and punish who do not, Nepal cannot be a better country for its citizens, including the young ones like Laksha.