Nepali Times Asian Paints
From The Nepali Press
Dhobi’s story


Rangalal Dhobi is 66 years old and hails from Raniyapur village in Banke district. His only wealth is his bicycle and a tiny makeshift hut built on an empty plot of land. He is constantly worried that his hut could be removed by the government and is uncertain where his family would live, as they are landless.

His previous generation had spent all their lives working as slaves and had to make do with whatever their masters provided. He himself spent half his life the same way, as a bonded labourer or kamaiya.

Following the liberation of kamaiyas, including his family, he managed to build tiny hut. But he still continues to serve his former master for his livelihood and in return makes about Rs 1,500 a year. This income is less than a seventh of what the average Nepali earns.

Statistics from the National Planning Commission, Ministry of Finance and World Bank show that Nepalis on average earn about Rs 10,000 a year. Dhobi has to feed six members of his family and this means he would need to work in more than 50 houses to properly provide for his family. But he has energy to work for only eight households.

Although 95 percent of kamaiyas, like Dhobi, are from the Tharu caste, there are a few from the hills and some are dalits from the tarai. The kamaiya families were thrilled when the government announced that they would get support, skills training, and free land. But Dhobi hasn't received anything in the last seven years. All he has is a kamaiya identity card which was supposed to help him get all the benefits from the state, but this has not happened.

Dhobi's situation is typical of backward Nepali communities who lack an educational certificate, land ownership papers and money. The dalits, freed kamaiyas and landless squatters are three key groups in that category who have no reach to the government.

Dhobi is not merely a madhesi but also a dalit, both of whom have never been considered part of the state by the government. It has just neglected them. They are even deprived of basic human rights. Hence they are the ones who have experienced all sorts of injustice: landlessness, exploitation for labour, illiteracy, humiliation, lack of political rights and social exclusion.

For many years, millions of dollars have been spent in their name and included in the national budget. Despite all this, their situation has hardly changed. It seems clear that the constituent assembly is key to creating a new Nepali nation. A new constitution will be formed following the elections and will especially address the issues of the most socially and economically backward Nepalis. There is also hope that this will help to restructure the nation into a more caring and responsible state.

As for Dhobi, he does not have time to think about anything momentous like that, but can only think of getting food to feed his family. He cannot read and does not understand Nepali radio broadcasts. Although he tries to grasp the words, he cannot comprehend the context. All he wants is a piece of paper from the government that gives him ownership of even a tiny plot of land. That is what freedom means to him. That for him is the new Nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)