The Nepalese exchange participants were in India to learn new farming methods when the corona pandemic forced them back home. But they were not the only ones returning: – A large group of urban migrant workers had to return as well. They had lost their jobs and were left with nothing. We realised we could use the skills our participants had learnt in India to help the migrants, says Kanchan Ghimire.

Kanchan is the project coordinator for the Organic Farming Promotion Programme. The Norec-supported programme works on countering rapid urbanisation in Nepal and India by training young people in sustainable organic farming. It is an exchange project between Integrated Village Development Service’s (IVDS) in Nepal and Parmath Samaj Sevi Sansthan in India.

In January, IVDS sent three exchange participants from Nepal to Jhansi in India where they learnt about improved farming methods. While in India, they also shared agricultural techniques on how to improve kitchen gardens with their Indian colleagues.

Participants continued to work despite lockdown
The participants had only been a few months in India when the pandemic forced them to go back home.

– The participants were disappointed that they had to go home so early. Then we looked at the aims of our project and saw that there were still things we could work with at home.

Nepal implemented a full lockdown in March. IVDS therefore decided to first focus on indoors work.

– One of the aims of our project is to bridge the gap between the local authorities and local farmers. Now we saw how important it was to help spread information about the corona virus, Kanchan explains.

The returned exchange participants started to develop an information book with all the governmental schemes to make the information more easily accessible for the community. By using digital tools, they did this together with their colleagues in India.

When Nepal decentralised the corona restrictions to local authorities, it became easier for the participants to move around. They started to organise activities in the local community, and made support groups for covid-affected youths, formed local training groups and helped develop kitchen gardens.

– When we went to the communities to do our activities, we found out about the conditions the returned migrant workers were facing. Then we decided to focus most of our activities on them.

Helping returned migrants at risk of extreme poverty 
In the Makwanpur District, five times as many migrant workers as normal have returned since the corona pandemic started. The migrants come mainly from the Gulf countries where they have lost their jobs because of the economic crisis. The local government has struggled to manage all the returned migrants, and there are few job opportunities for them. Most do not get any public support, and many are now at risk of extreme poverty.

– Many of these migrants have family members that depend on their income. The situation is not just dire for the migrants, but for their dependents as well, Kanchan adds.

IVDS’ exchange participants are now teaching agricultural techniques to some of the returned migrants. This way they can grow food both for their own consumption and for sale. It has been a great success, according to Kanchan:

– We have been working on this since July. Now the vegetables are starting to grow, and that has motivated many of the migrants to continue farming.

The participants use the techniques they learnt in India to train the migrants in Nepal. They have formed five groups that meet regularly to get training in the 20 demonstration plots they have developed. So far, they have reached 100 returned migrants.

In India, partner organisation Parmath Samaj Sevi Sanstha has also changed the way they work. Their focus after the pandemic has been to help build kitchen gardens. The project participants have continued to use the knowledge the Nepalese brought about kitchen gardens and have already developed 150 new kitchen gardens. Within the end of the year, the plan is to develop 100 more.

– A new lens to see our own society through 
The consequences of the pandemic have been horrible for millions of people. Still, the project partners have been able to take something useful out of it.

– I feel like the pandemic has given us a different lens to see our own society through, Kanchan says. He is sure that the pandemic will change the way they work in the future:

– Despite the tragic situation, we have seen some new opportunities. It made us realise that there was a large group we had previously excluded from our work.

IVDS and Parmath Samaj Sevi Sanstha are now in their third year of the exchange project.

– These years we have focused on replicating our learning, but we still felt like something was missing. Now we see it. We had excluded returned migrants from our work, those who really need our support. Now we will continue to work with them also after the pandemic.