The Gurkhas' toughest battle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 January, 1994, 12:00am

KRISHNA Dahadur Pun thought he had a well-paid job for life, but he was wrong. Having served as a Gurkha in the British Army for 24 years, in October 1992 he was made redundant. Today he is back in his home country wondering how, at 42, he can begin again.

The Gurkhas have served in the British Army since 1815. They now number about 6,000, half of whom are stationed in Hong Kong. In the run-up to 1997, however, they are to be gradually withdrawn, their force cut to 2,000.

The redundancy programme started more than a year ago, but its impact is only just being felt. The Gurkhas are Nepal's fourth most important source of income and, in a country that has an annual per capita income of US$170. Nearly all those who have losttheir jobs have only ever been soldiers and are generally lacking the skills needed to get on in civilian life.

In an effort to help them adapt, all Gurkhas leaving the British Army are entitled to attend a four-week retraining course on anything from small business management, to construction and driving. The agricultural course has been cancelled due to lack of interest. Technical courses are in greatest demand.

''With this new generation of soldiers the driving course has been the most popular. We're finding it difficult to find places for all those who apply,'' explains Honorary Captain P. L. Muo, of the British Army's Resettlement Wing. ''The licence they getis not recognised in a lot of countries, but with some retraining. If they get re-employed in the Middle East they can drive there.'' When former Gurkha K. D. Pun returned to Nepal he took with him a lump sum of HK$164,000 and an annual pension worth HK$8,400. This has allowed him to build a house, but with three growing children he knows this money will eventually run out.

''My children are still quite young, so now everything is quite all right, as far as food and clothes are concerned,'' he said. ''But when they grow older I hope they'll go on to higher education. I think in eight or 10 years' time I will have a problem to manage.'' Anticipating the day when he might fail to provide for his family Pun has applied to join the Gurkha Reserve Unit in Brunei. He is equally interested in being employed by the British Army in Nepal as a civilian welfare officer. If all fails he may fall back on plans to go back to the land where he grew up to farm pigs and chickens.

''Certainly the resettlement training that we do, which is in line with the resettlement training affording to British soldiers and servicemen, is not designed to make them into instant electricians, but rather, if they are living in Nepal, to help them monitor what is happening if they are building extensions or if wiring's being done,'' said Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Gilham, a commanding officer with the British Gurkha Depot in Nepal. ''Subjects like electronics, mechanics, radio and TV repair, they are more technical,'' said Honorary Captain P. L. Muo. ''If those boys are really interested they can continue training privately and become experts.'' The British Army runs a computer database which it uses in an effort to find former Gurkhas civilian jobs. This has been hailed a success, although many of the men listed there might disagree. ''The re-employment cell is very much in its early stages, having only started in August last year,'' said Lieut-Col Gilham. ''If there are job vacancies we will generally be able to fill them, unless they are terribly specialised.'' Job vacancies are hard to find. There are about 4,000 men, aged 50 or under, on the register. To date, less than 10 per cent of them have found employment - seven of them in Nepal, the rest abroad.

The majority have returned to Hong Kong, leaving their families in Nepal, to work as security guards for a company owned by Jardines. But this is only a stopgap. Restricted by immigration regulations they are employed on short-term contracts. All this does is delay the onset of long-term problems.