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Page last updated at 08:06 GMT, Tuesday, 4 August 2009 09:06 UK

Nepal town fears Gurkha exodus

By Joanna Jolly
BBC News, Dharan

Clocktower in Dharan built with Gurkha money
Gurkhas money paid for a clocktower, schools and roads in Dharan

Sitting in the quiet surroundings of the Gurkha Army House in the Nepalese town of Dharan, 69-year-old Krishna Rai says he would like to have the chance to settle in Britain.

"I've already spent more than three years in the UK and now my only daughter is living there so I would like to go and see her," he says.

Krishna Rai served in the British Gurkhas between 1958 and 1974. Under the new British government ruling, fought for by the actress Joanna Lumley, all Gurkha ex-servicemen who have completed more than four years of service are eligible to settle in the UK.

"I've applied twice before but been rejected. But now things have changed, I'm going to apply one more time," he says.

Gurkha town

But if he and many like him go, there are fears the local Nepalese economy will suffer.

Map

Squeezed between the green foothills of the Himalayas and Nepal's flat southern plains, Dharan is very much a Gurkha town. The British have recruited here since 1953 and about 20% of the population is made up of Gurkha ex-servicemen.

Evidence of their money is everywhere - in the clocktower in the central market place, in the asphalted roads, in the big houses, the many schools and community projects funded by British Gurkha remittance and pension money.

AG Hukpa Chongwang is one of many former Gurkhas who has used money from serving in the British army to help improve life in Dharan.

"In 1987, I retired from the British army. I've been in Nepal since then. In 1993, I established a school to provide quality education," he says.

Gurkha ex-serviceman Krishna Rai
We are going [to the UK] only for our children's future. Old Gurkhas want to return to Nepal to finish our lives. We don't want to die in the UK
Krishna Rai
Gurkha ex-serviceman, 69

Mr Chongwang fought with the British army in the Falklands war. He was injured during the conflict and he used the money he received in compensation to establish his school, which teaches children from the age of three to 16.

"In the Falklands, I lost my left eye and both of my legs were injured very badly. I was given some money from the South Atlantic fund which I put into this institution," he says.

Last year, the British army paid £60m ($102m) in pensions to Gurkha ex-servicemen in Nepal.

Impact

"There have been reports in the papers here about the impact on the local economy on Gurkhas leaving," says Col Jeremy Ellis, director of the Gurkha Welfare Scheme in Nepal.

British actress and Gurkha campaigner Joanna Lumley greets wellwishers as she arrives in the Nepali town of Dharan on 28 July 2009
Joanna Lumley visited Dharan as part of her "victory tour"

"It may well be that Gurkha remittances are going to be balanced by other remittances coming in from the Middle East and elsewhere," he says. "But it's pointless to deny the fact that Gurkhas leaving will have an impact."

In Dharan's local government office, administrator Ganesh Khatiwada says he has seen the number of British Gurkhas applying for documents to settle in the UK triple in the last two years.

"If the Gurkhas leave town, there is no question that Dharan is going to suffer hugely," he says.

"It will have an impact on the town's development, social and economic sector. Without a doubt, the local government is going to face a hard time without the Gurkhas here."

Family needed

Under the new British government ruling, passed in May, 10,000 more former Gurkhas are now eligible to leave Nepal for the UK. But no-one knows exactly how many of those will take up the opportunity.

Although he is applying for a visa now, Krishna Rai says he is too old to settle in Britain for good.

He says many of the older veterans would find life too hard without family support, and most, like him will return after a few years.

"We are going there only for our children's future," he says. "Old Gurkhas want to return to Nepal to finish our lives. We don't want to die in the UK."

But who knows how many of the younger veterans will leave Dharan, taking their much needed pensions and community skills with them.



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