A group of about 60 families is camped out in a forest clearing near the Banara River, just east of Mahendranagar.
According to a local social worker, they had been chased out of a Wildlife Reserve Extension area nearby, where they had lived, albeit illegally, for 30 years. Since they moved to this particular site about five months ago, they had sold all their animals to pay for food. By now they had even sold cooking utensils. Sitting right by the East-West Highway, the camp consisted of 30 or so 'tents', make-shift structures covered by tarp. There was one hand-pump.
They lived on whatever day job they could find, and whatever people would give them. Many children showed signs of malnutrition: unnaturally light hair colours, distended stomachs. They were out of school, had no access to safe water. Three children had already died of hunger or disease.
One man, holding a very young child, said he had not found any job that day, and they had not eaten. I happened to have a box of biscuits in my backpack. I knew there were not enough biscuits for all the children gathered around me, but I felt compelled to offer them anyway. No doubt most of the children were hungry, but older children let the youngest ones take them. That decency and dignity made me even sadder.
Worse yet, they told me that the Department of Forestry had served a notice that they had to leave the site by the following day. They said they had no place to go. Some expected that the police would come and perhaps even shoot them. But, they would rather die there than move again aimlessly. It seemed like they no longer had any energy or hope left.
Angry, I went to see the District Forestry Officer for Kanchanpur the next day. He said he understood their plight, but he could not do anything about it. He had been ordered to evict these people from the area. Finding land on which they might settle would be a job for the Ministry of Land Reform.
He also pointed out that many people have migrated from the hills in the hope of finding better land in the tarai. If they are given land, that would encourage more and more people to come. There simply was not enough to go around. He also pointed out that as the Department of Forestry had cleared encroached areas, most families simply disappeared. He said they must have gone back to the hills where they perhaps still had their own land. As an economist, I could understand these incentive problems.
But, I said it was difficult to believe that these people on the banks of the Banara River had any land to go back to. If they did, would they stay there even as some of their children were dying of hunger? The DFO did not have an answer.
The people at the Banara River had also told me that the Assistant Minister of Land Reform, Prakash Chitrakar Pariyar, had met them in April, but had not come back. Since about half of them were Dalits, they had high hopes that Pariyar, a Dalit himself, would understand their problems and come to their aid quickly. They clearly felt let down.
Back in Kathmandu, I went to see the assistant minister. I was pleased to discover that he had been hard at work. He had asked a team of experts to analyse the problems of landless Dalits and recommend solutions. He was planning to take this up with his minister soon. Upon hearing about the latest problem of impending eviction, he immediately contacted various officials concerned to stop a unilateral eviction without giving some thoughts to where these people might go or how they might make living. He would also look into providing them with some immediate relief. I was hopeful that some solution may be found for these people.
But that was then. A new government has since taken over. And I do not know what has happened to the good work Pariyar began. But the question in my mind is why this should have required an intervention by an assistant minister in the first place? The Banara River residents do not care that the DFO's responsibility is limited to controlling encroachment and that finding a resettlement site for them was a responsibility of another ministry.
I have no doubt that to them, the DFO represented the government, not just the Forestry Department. He was the government. An internal problem of coordination should not become the citizen's problem, especially when it comes to powerless and deprived citizens. When Nepal is in need of government institutions that are truly responsive to the people, old attitudes must change.
"That is not my responsibility," does not cut it. If government officials see citizens in dire need, they should figure out how to help them. If the matter is outside their responsibility, they should mobilise those who can help. In short, they should become advocates for the vulnerable. That is what one should expect from a good government, isn't it?
Behind the plight of the Banara River people, there is a much larger problem of thousands upon thousands of landless poor. And, the problem is also related to the migration of people from overcrowded hills to relatively land rich tarai. The DFO in Kanchanpur has a point. If the government gives the Banara River people land to settle on, that may encourage more people to encroach on the forest areas in the hope of receiving their own land.
The government has tried to identify those who had lived on government land for many years as having a certain claim, while discouraging further encroachment. Setting a "cut-off" date like this does seem to make sense. And, in fact, I understand that at least some of the families at the Banara River were recognised by the Ojha Commission, one of the several efforts to identify people who deserve certain claim to land rights. Whether this approach is effective is open to debate.
But, the point is that by all accounts the Banara River people have been already given certain recognition by the government. Their destitution is evident. I think they simply need to be helped. The debate over an appropriate long-term solution should not become an excuse for leaving them stranded.
Post Script: Nearly 1,000 landless families living in camps like those by the Banara River are currently gathered in the vicinity of Mahendranagar, protesting the government's eviction orders. As the breadwinners in the family stage a hunger strike, the plight of the women and children has gone from bad to worse.
Ken Ohashi is the World Bank Country Director for Nepal.