August 2012


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Experiences and Feelings of Working Together with Kamaiyas in Nepal

Laxmi Bahadur Maharjan

Laxmi Bahadur Maharjan facilitates a community-level social
audit program in Nepal under the tools of good governance
program of his organization, the Society for Participatory
Cultural Education (SPACE). (Photo by SPACE)

The Kamaiyas, who had been victimized as bonded laborers under an extreme and unjust form of exploitation and slavery system, were freed through the declaration of the Nepalese government on July 17, 2000. This declaration hurriedly was announced without any adequate planning of the Kamaiya’s resettlement needs and other necessary preparations. As a result, the freed Kamaiyas began to temporarily resettle on public lands or on the edge of the jungle after clearing a space or forcefully taking land the next day after the government’s declaration. The mainstream media reported on these issues concerning the Kamaiyas extensively in the country and overseas.

The Nepalese government placed the Kamaiyas in four categories: (1) Kamaiyas who have no land got red ID cards, (2) Kamaiyas who have no land certificate and live on public land, or eilani land, got blue ID cards, (3) Kamaiyas who have less than 677 square meters of land were categorized in a third class and (4) the last category consisted of Kamaiyas who have more than 677 square meters of land. The Kamaiyas from five districts identified in the first and second categories, i.e., with red or blue ID cards, numbered 27,570 people. The government began to distribute land to Kamaiyas with the distribution varying depending upon where the Kamaiya lived, from 339 square meters for those in urban areas to 1,693 square meters for those in rural areas. At the same time, each family was supported with 10,000 rupees (US$138) and 35 square feet of timber to build a house.

The media kept broadcasting that the Kamaiyas were being resettled through a systematic process, but activists and the Kamaiyas were not satisfied. The Kamaiya activists and others from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) organized different activities to respond to the government’s interventions. The information was quite confusing, which made it difficult to offer a clear explanation about the Kamaiyas’ situation for those outside of the community who had no direct encounter with the Kamaiyas.

It is in this context that the Society for Participatory Cultural Education (SPACE) appointed me as a member of the research team to examine the situation of the Kamaiyas and design appropriate program activities.

During this research, it was found that the government in some cases had distributed land to Kamaiyas on riversides where there were no irrigation facilities. Their situation was quite vulnerable as there were fears of floods in the rainy season and problems of clean drinking water and a lack of irrigation in the summer season. The Kamaiyas had been working as wage laborers on the landlord’s fields or in their factories. Sometimes they worked as seasonal laborers. Some Kamaiyas even worked as laborers overseas. Through this research, I thus gained a better understanding of the lives of the Kamaiyas and how they have survived in spite of having only a minimum standard of life’s necessities.

Although government policies and programs have overall been good, there are, however, some bitter experiences. The family budget of freed Kamaiyas, for instance, was so inadequate that they used to freeze during the winter every year due to ineffective implementation. Consequently, there should be more effective and functional mechanisms to implement the government’s policies and programs.

Because of the innumerable program activities of local, national and international NGOs as well as the Nepalese government, the Kamaiyas’ situation is comparatively better according to their own accounts. The women are more organized, have a bit better life than others and enjoy a measure of representation from the village to the district to the central levels, all of which indicates that Kamaiyas are making progress.

However, there are still 4,652 Kamaiyas not resettled yet, according to government data in July 2012, with civil society activists claiming these figures should be multiplied several times. It means though that at least 4,652 Kamaiyas have been identified as being dependent on the sympathy of their relatives or others.

Moreover, the settled Kamaiyas are also not free from problems. They have been victimized by illiteracy and a general lack of education, few job alternatives, little access to government programs and insufficient local resources. In addition, they are perceived as an enemy by the people throughout the old settlements who had been occupying the lands or jungle before the Kamaiyas arrived. They do not permit the Kamaiyas to use the jungle or have access to drinking water and other local resources.

To address the above-mentioned issues, SPACE and Arbeiterwohlfarht International (AWO), or Workers Welfare Institution, in Germany started the community empowerment and sustainable development program in October 2009 in five village development committees (VDCs)—Motipur, Soharahwa, Deudhakala, Kalika and Dhadhawar—in Bardiya District. The key objective of the program is that the freed Kamaiyas in these five VDCs in the district are empowered and that their sustainable livelihood is promoted. The other specific objectives are to mobilize and organize the freed Kamaiyas, squatters and Dalit communities into formal and informal community-based organizations, to enhance the employment potential of and diversify employment opportunities for these three social communities, to initiate community processes to improve their health and education and to build their capacities and information base so they can avail themselves of their entitlements and rights that are assured these marginalized people through government policies for them.

By getting vocational training in several areas, such as installing hand pumps, repairing mobile phones and motorcycles, poultry farming and business planning-cum-entrepreneurship, hundreds of Kamaiyas have become self-employed. There are currently 1,682 Kamaiyas directly organized in 81 groups. Their total savings is 1,387,000 rupees (US$19,202), and they have been mobilizing an additional 1,250,000 rupees (US$17,306) in their own groups with low interest. They have formed a network in five VDCs, and they have been advocating for their rights.

These achievements always encourage me for further action, and many possibilities for progress exist, such as teaching the Kamaiyas about government policies and programs, helping the Kamaiyas to build coordination among government agencies and various NGOs, teaching the Kamaiyas about different job alternatives and developing vocational skills within the Kamaiya community—all of these developments have encouraged me to keep up my work.

* Laxmi Bahadur Maharjan is the monitoring and evaluation officer of the Society for Participatory Cultural Education (SPACE) in Nepal.