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Nepali Laborers Win a Decisive Victory in Northern India

This article is part of a series featuring inspiring stories of local action #fromthefrontlines of COVID-19 in the Global South. For more, visit our COVID-19 page and follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

When India went into lockdown in March, tens of thousands of migrant laborers from Nepal flooded across the border to return home. This is a story about families who stayed.

Before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, there were an estimated 2 million migrant laborers from Nepal in India. Some Nepali laborers and their families have lived and worked in Himachal Pradesh, a northern Indian state in the Himalayas, for nearly half a century. But they lack proper citizenship documents.

As COVID-19 spread across India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced a huge relief package—nearly $260 billion, intended to shore up the country’s economy and aid struggling citizens.

An ENSS-HP member collects data from Nepali laborers in Himachal Pradesh.

Without the necessary documentation, though, many migrant laborers have been excluded from the government’s assistance program. In the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh, the local administration refused to provide Nepali laborers with basic supplies, including food grains from the fair price retail shops, shelter, and medical facilities.

Recognizing the injustice, the Association of Strong Women Alone of Himachal Pradesh (Ekal Nari Shakti Sanghtan Himachal Pradesh, or ENSS-HP), a local women’s rights organization, compiled a list of 59 Nepali laborer families that had been unfairly excluded from government assistance despite living in India for the last 40 years. ENSS-HP brought that list to the Society for Social Uplift Through Rural Action (SUTRA), a Fund-supported organization working in Solan district, who filed a writ of petition in the high court of Himachal Pradesh demanding that these 59 families be granted basic supplies.

In a July 20 ruling, the high court delivered a decisive victory, ordering the Solan district deputy commissioner to arrange food grains, shelter, and basic medical facilities for the list of families within a week. The deputy commissioner has ordered his officers to verify the list presented by ENSS-HP and begin implementing the court’s order.

With courts across India only open for virtual hearings, seemingly low-stake matters like this aren’t given much priority. But thanks to the advocacy of ENSS-HP and SUTRA, the Himachal Pradesh high court recognized the severity of refusing food, shelter, and medical facilities during a pandemic and delivered a pro-people and pro–human rights decision.

Fresh off this remarkable victory, ENSS-HP intends to identify more Nepali laborer families in other districts of Himachal Pradesh to ensure they, too, have fair and equal access to government assistance. The Fund is proud to provide organizations like SUTRA with the financial and strategic support necessary to take on abuses of power—and win.

*Header image is a mountain range in Himchal Pradesh. Credit: Mauro Gambini/Flickr