The 17 July government announcement abolishing the system of virtual slavery known as kamaiya came as a sudden surprise. No one expected the movement to free the bonded labourers that began on 1 May, the International Labour Day, to come to a denouement so soon.
Certainly not the powerful landed class from the western Nepal terai where the practice is entrenched. The rich farmers (known rather innocuously as kisan, or farmer) who relied on their pool of bonded labourers suddenly found themselves without workers in the middle of the farming season. But for the dozens of jubilant kamaiyas who sang and danced their way through the Kathmandu streets last week that was the least of their concerns.
The announcement affects thousands of kamaiyas concentrated in the western districts of Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Kailali; and Kanchanpur. A 1995 government study estimated the kamaiya population in these districts to be 25,700 from 16,400 families. Three-quarters of them were bound to their landlord by perpetual debt. Under this system the burden of debt repayment shifts automatically to the eldest son after the death of the head of the family. Non-governmental organisations, however, estimate the number is closer to 200,000. According to the Backward Society Education (BASE), a grassroots organisation which has been in the forefront in the campaign to free kamaiyas, 98 percent of them are the indigenous Tharu people.Soon after the celebrations,I however, the harsh reality of an uncertain future loomed large. Thaga Chaudhari of Kanchanpur was exultant that his 35-year ordeal as a kamaiya was finally over, but before leaving the capital he said: "Now we appeal to the government to make arrangements for our housing."
Rehabilitation of kamaiyas may prove difficult, especially since the kisans are likely to resist the government ruling that allows up to 10 years\' imprisonment for keeping bonded labourers. They are particularly agitated since the freed kamaiyas have also been released from all debt obligations that bind them to their \'masters\'. (The landlords are planning to take the matter to court.)
Neither the government nor the NGOs campaigning for the kamaiyas seem prepared to meet the challenge of rehabilitation. "The announcement was so sudden that nobody knows what exactly to do next," said an NGO activist involved in the kamaiya freedom campaign. So far, the only relief has been announced by BASE, which has made arrangements to support freed kamaiya families with one months house rent and food-supply for 10 days. Action is needed urgently, says BASE member Yagya Raj Chaudhary, who helped kick-start the kamaiya freedom campaign in Kailali district.
Chaudhary says that the government should mobilise local administrative bodies to identify kamaiyas and for relief distribution and rehabilitation processes. "But first the Kamaivas should be issued freedom certificates, then the government should provide them housing facilities and the fund essential for their rehabilitation," he adds.
Two days after the historic announcement, the Land Reforms and Management Ministry introduced a bill in Parliament proposing to outlaw the bonded labour system and ensure the welfare of freed kamaiyas. But activists doubt if the government will act with the same alacrity in rehabilitating them.
The lack of reliable data on Kamaiyas is sure to pose challenges for one. Krishna Raj Adhikary at the Land Reforms Ministry said work has started updating the statistics on kamaiyas, but added: "But we will be able to work for kamaiya welfare only if we receive additional funds. The Finance Ministry has not announced any assistance for the kamaiyas so far, and the National Planning Commission admits to being caught "rather unprepared".
Following a five-year-old tradition, this year too the government allocated funds to train about 1000 kamaiyas with different skills. But the Rs 14.5 million meant for pre-planned activities are painfully inadequate, now that landlords have already begun evicting kamaiyas off their lands.
"The wrath of the kisans against the kamaiyas was anticipated. The government has to mobilise local administrative bodies to protect the freed kamaiyas from being displaced from the land where they hae built their homes, said Prem Parajuli of Kamaiya Concern Group, a grouping of NGO and government representatives.
All the freed kamaiyas need is some support initially. "We will work hard for wages, but the government has to provide us shelter for our sustenance,\' said Asha Ram Bangaura, who took part in the Kathmandu sit-in.
Activist-economist Meena Acharya believes that the labour market has plenty of opportunities to offer the kamaiyas: "Their sustainability depend on how promptly and effectively the government delivers them immediate relief in terms of food and shelter."
She may be wrong there. The terai\'s job market has already reached a point of saturation, as a 1997 study of International Labour Organisation pointed out. Interregional migration and pressure from workers from across the border has already lowered the wage rate to the minimum. In this situation, the younger generation of the newly freed kamaiyas who opt for jobs outside agriculture are likely to become vulnerable to exploitation all over again.
Kamaiya Mod Chaudhary takes the mike at the Bhadrakali sit-in. Kamaiyas freed earlier learn new skills to prepare them for freedom (top).
Posing with family, Phulpati Chaudhary and his 13-year-old son Ram Chaudhary (far right) were both kamaiyas.