09 January, 2009

A harvest of dreams

Sushma Joshi
"Last week, one man hung himself, two died in construction, and seven died in their sleep," says Devendra Raj Bhattarai. We are sitting in a five star hotel in Doha, where I find myself suddenly sequestered after being pulled en route to some other destination. Bhattarai, the Special Correspondent for the Gulf Region for Kantipur Daily, is giving me a list of deaths that have taken place that week. In total, he says, 180 Nepalis died in Doha last year -- about a hundred of them in their sleep.
What do you mean, they died in their sleep? I ask.

There is no post-mortem of workers who die in Doha. There are no human rights organizations in the Gulf emirate, and no UN agencies such as the ILO maintain a presence. The true reason of the deaths, Bhattarai says, will probably never be known.

"I have talked to some doctors, and they give climatic reasons," Devendra says. But the biggest reason, he says, is the weight of the dreams that men and women carry with them. "There´s a harvesting of dreams here. Men pay one lakh to come here, only to find that they make half of the 600 reales promised to them. And 200-300 reales is necessary just for food." At 54 degree centigrade desert heat, many men put the AC on at night after having faced the heat that rises from the roads all day. At night they go to sleep and never wake up.

One Nepali watches a flock of upto 300 sheep in the desert for 500 reales (RS.10,000.) About 5000 others work as camel jockeys, brushing and shampooing camels as they ready for the "Miss Beautiful Camel" pageant that the gender segregated Islamic nation holds in the place of female beauty pageants. The work is tough, but the isolation is tougher. The employers who hire shepherds and farmers will not renew his visa after the initial three month period, after which he becomes illegal. To leave Doha, one needs a khruj, a release letter from the employer authorizing the worker to return home. Five Nepali workers currently wait at the Embassy, their ticket and passport in hand, but unable to leave because their employers have refused to send the khruj.

¨People are given a lot of dreams. So of course they die in their dreams,¨ says Devendra. Doha boasts of having the highest per capita income in the world. But for the workers who toil within the emirates, the dream is sometimes shockingly different from the reality.

Half the problem, says Bhattarai, lies with Kathmandu. Nepali law prohibits women from coming to the Gulf as housemaids. And yet many show up at the Embassy each week, holding papers from the Department of Labour authorizing them to work as housemaids in the Gulf. Manju Baniya, a twenty-eight year old worker showed up at the Embassy after her employer made her give oil massages to the feet of his guests as part of her housemaid duties, and showed a Rs.500 receipt she paid to the Government of Nepal for giving her work authorization.

¨The Department of Labour should not send their own people on fake passports, with labour stamps stuck all over them, ¨ says Devendra. The Ambassador, Dr. Suryanath Mishra, a professor from Janakpur, tries hard to help all the workers who come to him, but even he has limitations. One problem is fake passports. Many Nepalis, gullible and illiterate, come bearing the passports of other people. In one such case, a Kami man died in an accident, but his family couldn´t claim the 40 lakh Nepali rupees that the Gulf Emirates offers as compensation. In a recent case, a man called Prembahadur Lama came bearing the passport of Jeevankumar Gharti.

The kind of informed and activist journalism that Devendra Bhattarai practises is having an impact. Kantipur coverage prompted the manpower agency to quickly send a ticket to send Prembahadur Lama back to Nepal. Devendra recently got a call from two twins in jail -- they had found out his number and asked him for help. The journalist negotiated for two air tickets for the men, and they recently flew home.

¨I get calls from people as far away as Saudi and Iraq,¨ he says. Women, he says, are especially vulnerable. The Nepali Embassy in Saudi has a shelter inside the premises. Eighteen girls currently live there -- six are pregnant, two have broken legs (they fell off the roof while trying to escape rape from their employers), and one is a single mother.

Dolma Sherpa, wrongly accused and given a death sentence in Kuwait, has received a lot of coverage. What is less well known is that there are 31 girls and 2 boys from Nepal in jail with her. Four women are in jail with their children -- the fathers, outraged at the women for seeking paternal rights, called the police and imprisoned them. To become pregnant is a crime. Caught by the police, the women often have to point to fellow labourers as fathers or else they could end up in jail or dead in a bathroom. Pointing to an Arab employer can land you in jail, as in the case of Sita Sapkota (a pseudonym). Her story, reported in Kantipur, says how she is in jail for fighting for the rights of her eight year old daughter. The law of the land says the Arab employer can never be wrong, and his word always holds over the employee.

Outside the five star hotel, a Manhattan of the dreams is built at immense speed. The highrises are awe-inspiring. But in every nook and cranny one can see workers covered in dust, hanging on ropes as they wipe the immense glass windows, hammering and sawing a million window frames. The architectural landscape is merciless in both its beauty and its scale, and the people who work on them look as insignificant as the designers of these edifices meant them to be.

Are the workers slaves? I ask. ¨Not exactly slaves, but kind of slaves,¨ answers Devendra. In one case, two farmers from Nepal were hired to watch pigeons. After two months, they were accused of stealing and eating five pigeons. The men denied this stoutly, but the employer´s words hold weight over the workers. The two men were never paid for their three months of work, and were sent back to their country, their one lakh investment never repaid. ¨If they are not slaves, then what are they?¨ asks Devendra.

¨As long as America rules, there won´t be human rights in the Gulf,¨ says Devendra. The sudden linkage may appear far-fetched, until one realizes that the US is the primary buyer of Gulf oil. With four US bases in Doha guarding the oil so important to the American economy, and with the US giving tacit sanction to the impunity and human rights violations in this small Gulf state, it appears slavery in its modern day form will remain unchallenged -- unless some new American awareness comes of age.

There is a long list of things that could be done so Nepali men and women don´t suffer mediaeval imprisonment and slavery-like conditions in the Gulf. Unethical manpower agencies could be blacklisted. Employment opportunities and education could be scaled up in Nepal. The Department of Labour could re-route women to more democratic countries for housemaid work.

"Baburam Bhattarai came twice and said that all Nepalis should return to their country," says Devendra. ¨When will this happen? Where is our government? Why do we have to call the American embassy for help when our men are stranded in Iraq?¨

As our politicians wrangle about a new Constitution, and fight over who's to be in power, Nepali men in Doha spent 12 reales to buy a bottle of Luma toilet cleaner. The liquid gives a slight feeling of intoxication, unavailable to workers who cannot buy a 30 reale bottle of black market alcohol. They drink this bottle -- then another and another, and then lie down to sleep and never wake up.

It's time for the world to wake up and ask: what are we doing to our people? Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is this the dream we dreamt for our world?
Posted on: 2009-01-09 21:20:03 (Server Time)

1 comment:

Six said...

i came across this article while i was browsing through Nepal online news. though, my country of Origin is Nepal, i was brought up in India. so, i have always remained aloof from Nepal politics and the news which are making the headlines, there. though, i haven't been to Nepal yet, all through my life, i have only heard about the Natural beauty of Nepal, the people of Nepal, busy streets and the expensive hotels of Kathmandu, the fascinating Pokhara, and the Huge Everest. once in a while, i do get to hear about the political condition of Nepal, and thankz to the News channels in India for the coverage. but seriously, i never came across such incidents happening to Nepalese. it felt bad reading this article. it is not that i am unaware about these things happening in Middle-East. every now and then, i hear this type of treatment happening to an Indian. and i thought that the "middle-East" craze is only limited to India-SriLanka-China. sure, i am wrong. but when i read about Nepalese being treated this way, it kinda felt personal to me. i see many Nepalese coming to India, in search of their living. and, as long as they dont know the local language, new people surrounding them wont make their lives easy. anyways, please convey my best regards to Devendra who have been helping people reach their homeland. and thankz to you, for this article.