Nepali Times
Free to suffer


As the Dhangadi sky bursts open. Saraswati Chaudhari picks up her baby boy from the muddy ground and rushes into her hut with its blue plastic covering. She places him on the charpoy, and in a mechanical motion picks up her family's ration sack and then the handful of kitchen utensils scattered all over the floor to pile them on the other end of the string bed. She hurriedly collects the firewood and that too goes on the bed. All her belongings now safe from the water soaking the
floor rapidly, she herself perches on the bed with the baby on her lap.

Since she left her "owner" two weeks ago, the plasticcovered hut has been this former kamaiya family's only protection against the raging monsoon. And when it pours heavily, the only dry place for her family is the bed.

But Saraswati is among the lucky ones. Angani Chaudhari has been living with his family of 11 inside the skeleton of a hut hoping the government will provide him with at least a plastic sheet to cover it with "someday soon".

Angani is not alone. There are hundreds of other kamaiya families living under the open sky in the far-western district of Kailali and Kanchanpur, many of them evicted forcefully from their previous homes by the kisans (landowners).

The 17 July government announcement abolishing the virtual slavery system of kamaiya came as a surprise to everyone- the campaigning kamaiyas, NGOs and the government bodies-and caught them all totally unprepared. And it is this unpreparedness, coupled with a lack of interest in the central government and the rigidity of local government officials, that are slowing down the rehabilitation process. "It will take three or four months more just to begin the rehabilitation," says Rishi Raj Lumsali, chairman of the Kanchanpur district development committee.

The government has so far completed the first phase of updating statistics on the kamaiyas in Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur districts. But there is variance in the figures provided by the government and by the NGOs. Activists doubt the reliability of the new government updates, claiming that the government failed to reach the inner and difficult parts of the districts where kamaiyas are still being held illegally.

"The government teams never reached my family," says Hira Devi Chaudhari in Kailali. Hira Devi belongs to the first batch of kamaiyas who filed a petition against their landlord, former Nepali Congress minister, Shiva Raj Pant, on 1 May 2000 that kicked off the movement to free kamaiyas.

"Kamaiyas living near towns are now aware of the government ban. But many others are still ignorant of the ruling. They are still unorganised and do not know they have to register themselves with the government," says Ashok Bikram Jairu, a social worker from Kanchanpur. But he is equally cautious about the figures touted by trade unions and NGOs: "Many nonkamaiyas are out there to enlist themselves for free land the government might distribute to former kamaiyas. And others are being planted by political parties."

Kailali's land reforms officer, Maheshwor Niraula, admits the problem. "Thirty-three wageearning labourers from a single ward at Tikapur were found to have registered as kamaiyas," he says. Niraula estimates some 25 to 40 percent of the forms may have been filled by nonkamaiyas.

Activists say the local administration is chary about upsetting the kisans. Although nobody verbally opposes the official ban on bonded labour, the kisans are preparing to fight the government decision. The newly formed Forum for the Protection of Kisan's Rights filed a writ with the Supreme Court on 9 August, demanding the government compensate them the sauki, the debt money that tied the kamaiyas to them. Though many of the kamaiyas \'owed' their landlords less than Rs 5,000, the kisans claim the waiving of sauki might cause them economic burden.

"The government decision is against the Constitution. If sauki is illegal then let the courts settle it. Why should government outlaw sauki?" says an angry Dilli Raj Pant of the Forum. Himself a member of the ruling Congress, Pant criticised the government for letting kamaiya system "look like" bondage labour whereas the system in fact is an "annually renewable contract".

Kailali DDC Chairman Narayan Datta Mishra is sympathetic to the kisans' demands. "The government should reconsider its ruling on sauki. Kisans have suffered because of it," he says. Mishra believes the "untimely" government announcement to release the kamaiyas in the middle of the agricultural season is a result of "unjustifiable" pressure from the opposition and NGOs.

That kisans hold NGOs responsible for the liberation of kamaiyas is clear. "Our relationship with kamaiyas was perfectly harmonious. The trouble began when the NGOs started provoking them. In the long run, the kamaiyas themselves will be the losers, their places in the fields will be filled by Indian workers," says Hem Prakash Regmi, president of the Forum.

Before the 17 July government announcement Regmi had four families of kamaiyas working for him who left his household three weeks back. Now he is determined not to let his ex-kamaiyas enter the huts built in his land: "What if the government decides to declare that the land too should belong to the kamaiyas."

Kamaiya-kisan tension is also palpable. Young kamaiyas seem determined not to work for kisans though they have no skills outside agriculture, while kisans feel threatened by their aggressiveness.

"This is pain caused by transition. Everything will settle down in time," says land reforms officer Niraula. That is the kind of optimism that is sorely needed on both sides of the divide now.

Kanchanpur led the way

The day that Shiv Raj Pant's kamaiya's decided to begin their movement may go down in history as beginning of the end the kamaiya system. But few are aware that the kamaiyas of the adjoining district of Kanchanpur who had already started a silent revolution to end the debt bondage months earlier.

"The severity of exploitation and size of kisan landholdings are much smaller than in the other four districts. That is why the activities that preceded the 1 May petition did not catch anyone's attention," says Kanchanpur DDC Chairman Rish Raj Lumsali.

Using the authority granted by the Local Governance Act, the DDC fixed the minimum wage for agriculture labourers at Rs 80 on 14 January. Kamaiya Nepal Chaudhari immediately petitioned the Laxmipur VDC, demanding he be paid the minimum wage for all the years he had been working for his landlord. The landlord declined compensation but instead granted Nepal freedom and also waived off his debt as well.

Four days later, on 18 January, the DDC and the kisans reached an agreement according to which kisans would volunteer to release kamaiyas with saukis less than Rs 15,000. This led to the freeing of 22 kamaiya families.

In March kamaiyas themselves began agitating for their freedom. Eighteen kamaiyas working for Kalyan K.C. of Shankarpur VDC, filed a petition against their landlord. On 21 May, 48 kamaiyas from six VDCs filed separate petitions with their respective VDC offices demanding freedom. Two days later, Parasan VDC issued a freedom certificate to Bahadur Rana.

Then on 8 July came the Kanchanpur Declaration, which worked a formula to ultimately emancipate kamaiyas in the district.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)