Bonded to Labor
The Contemporary Situation in Nepal
By Sushma Joshi
This piece originally appeared in Samar 16: Fall/Winter, 2003
Bonded labor, or debt bondage, is the least known form of slavery that exists today, yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people. At least 20 million people throughout the world are bonded laborers: whole families of agricultural laborers in India; Togolese girls sold as maids in Gabon; eastern European women tricked into prostitution in western Europe. A complete mixture of people who have one thing in common: a debt they are forced to repay with their labor.
On January 13, 2000 the Nepali government, through the Local Self-Governance Act, established a minimum wage for agricultural laborers -- Rs. 74, or just over US$1 per 8-hour workday. On May 1, also International Labor Day, 19 Kamaiya (bonded labor) families filed a petition against their master, ex-minister Shiva Raj Pant, demanding minimum wages in compliance with the new regulation.
Shiva Raj Pant paid his bonded laborers seven quintals of rice each as annual pay. This was the equivalent of about Rs 14-16 a day. The amount was far below the minimum wage fixed by the government, which decrees Rs. 74 a day for adult workers, and Rs. 60 for children working on a daily basis.
When the former minister refused, eleven Kamaiyas headed for the District Administration Office to register a case against Shiva Raj Pant on May 11. The Chief District Officer, a Brahmin, refused to register their complaint.
In the next two months momentum gathered around the Kamaiya liberation movement. Human rights activists, NGOs, and INGOs came together in a concentrated effort to bring pressure on the Nepali government to end the practice of bonded labor. Strikes and mass rallies took place outside Singha Durbar, the seat of Parliament. On July 17, 2000 the practice of bonded labor was declared illegal by the government of Nepal. An estimated 200,000 bonded laborers were declared free of their ancestral debts. Ironically, and perhaps prophetically, Dilli Chaudhari, the leader of Backward Society Education (BASE), the largest grass roots organization working against bonded labor, was assaulted and arrested by the police along with other demonstrators outside Parliament on the very same day.
By July, thousands of liberated Kamaiyas had been driven out of former homes, and their possessions confiscated by landlords enraged by the decree. Entire families were dispossessed, and forced to leave their houses, leaving all their cooking utensils and meager possessions behind. The schizophrenic interests of the government became clear when they made an appeal to Kamaiyas a week after their liberation, to cooperate with their former landlords, and to return to work. The government put out this appeal due to its "unpreparedness" with regards to their rehabilitation.
The former Kamaiyas moved to refugee settlement camps in five districts in Western Nepal. Their most pressing demands included the enforcement of the minimum agricultural wage; 10 kattas of land for each displaced former bonded laborer family; identity cards for former bonded laborers; protection from police and former landlord harassment; food, health services, and education for people in the temporary settlements.
According to the government, there were, at the last count, at least 16,000 bonded laborers in the country. Human rights organizations said the figure could be as high as 40,000. According to a survey conducted in 1995 by BASE, there were about 35,874 Kamaiya scattered in five districts of Western Nepal -- Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dang. Newspapers and organizational reports have used figures as high as 200,000. The Kamaiya system has been prevalent for decades in the five southwestern districts of the country -- Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur. The practice of bonded labor also exists in Eastern Nepal.
After the restoration of democracy, a larger number of non-governmental organizations were allowed to register and work in Nepal. Among these was BASE, Backward Society Education, a Tharu grassroots organization that started a social mobilization program for bonded laborers. BASE works in 6 districts. According to their publications, they have 29,352 registered individual members (March 2000) and support from many more people. BASE was instrumental in starting the social movement that eventually led to the mass mobilization against bonded labor.
The proclamation of emancipation, and the surge of Kamaiya leaving their masters, brought a rush of initial funding from international donors that soon dried up. Kamaiyas, as internal refugees, fell outside the mandate of refugee funding agencies. By January of 1991, the camps, ill prepared to deal with the massive influx, were experiencing outbreak of diseases like pneumonia. Cold wave, common in the Terai area during winter, claimed nine lives. Children and older people were most vulnerable. Children remained without education and health care.
By January 1991, most families still had not received any of the land promised by the government. A few hundred families were provided with 10 kattas (3 hectares) of land. Most remained landless, or were only given 5 kattas, which was not enough to support a family for more than six months. On January 18th, frustrated by the government's lack of commitment to land reform, about 3,000 ex-Kamaiya families in Kailali and Kanchanpur districts moved peacefully from 51 different makeshift camps into 19 pieces of government-owned but non-forest land, occupying a total of almost 1,500 bighas of land. On February 17, thousands of dwellings occupied by former bonded laborers near forestland were destroyed by Forest Department authorities. This struggle between government and ex-Kamaiyas continues to this day, as authorities set fire to squatter dwellings. The authorities have periodically been setting fire to squatter settlements in Western Nepal, pointing to unresolved tensions. The Carter Center for Human Rights, started by former US President Jimmy Carter, has been active on this issue, issuing letters of protest to the Nepali government regarding the burnings. And yet the harassment has not stopped.
The Ex-Kamaiya Rehabilitation Coordination and Monitoring Committee, a government entity, started to distribute ID cards to all ex-Kamaiyas only on September 30, 2001. This process was very slow, and most people remain without this identity card. The lack of identity cards meant that most families who were ex-Kamaiyas were not recognized by the government as such, thereby making them ineligible for aid or land. This lack of documentation and national identity, a deep-rooted problem amongst marginalized communities within Nepal, is due to a lack of infrastructure and commitment on the government's part to provide citizenship rights to all people, especially ethnic minorities.
The failure of the government bureaucracy to address the ex-Kamaiyas’ situation, which could drag them back to their previous indebted status, has been strongly challenged by advocacy at the grassroots level. A host of NGOs have drawn attention of both international and national organizations to the urgent situation facing ex-Kamaiyas. In conjunction with other INGOs based in Nepal, including Danish MS Nepal and Danida, Save the Children US and Action Aid, community organizations have kept up the pressure to bring awareness to the urgent situation facing a community uprooted, displaced, and without support from national or international sources.
The foot-dragging of the government can be read in various ways. The government, constituted of high caste, Nepali-speaking men, has little interest in helping ethnic minorities get land rights which might potentially cut down their own landholdings. Caste is also very much an issue. The threat of Maoists, who denounce all forms of caste, have put the officials, mostly from high-caste backgrounds, under pressure. Already holding on to a beleaguered caste system, they do not want to jeopardize a comfortable system of social privilege and entitlement based on a naturalized division of land and labor, for the contemporary calls of human rights.
Within the caste system, the Chettris, Brahmins, and Newars have traditionally dominated the political, educational, and financial landscapes of Nepal. The system, which decrees that people are based on a hierarchy of labor, had allocated the most lucrative and profitable sectors -- politics, education, and finance -- to the three dominant groups. The Tharus, within this schema, would be forever bonded, not just to their monetary debts, but to their assigned roles as agricultural indentured laborers. The rage that was directed towards them after the decree of freedom reflects not just the loss of a profitable revenue for landlords, but also the loss of a system of social privilege which had come to be seen not just as natural, but also as a right.
At the current moment, the political upheaval caused by the Emergency, instituted to restore stability after the civil disruptions caused by the conflicts between the Maoist movement and the state, has been used as an effective excuse by political leaders to harass the bonded labor liberation movement. The process of legal registration, which allows BASE to be registered as a non-governmental organization, was recently threatened by a politician who has seized this opportunity to harass the bonded labor movement in the West. BASE's registration, required in order for it to function as a legitimate NGO, is still pending.
The challenges that face the Kamiaya liberation movement arise not just in providing food, education, healthcare, and land to an internally displaced community. They consist in recognizing that social change will never happen until the material basis of production, ie; land, exchanges hands and is owned by people themselves as private property. It also consists in changing attitudes about labor, and its meaning. It consists in shifting the Brahminic ideology that working with hands is "polluted", and to moving a shift in values where agricultural work is seen for what it is -- the backbone of a landlocked, agricultural economy. It consists in examining the hierarchy based around labor, and the internal codings of sacred versus profane that is deeply embedded in the cultural logic.
Labor, in all parts of South Asia, is an ideologically charged issue. The work that people have done have determined the course of their social ranking, the historical trajectories of their societies and their contemporary situations. To understand and untangle the threads of history of bonded labor in Nepal, one has to go back to the hegemonic imperatives of caste ideologies, and the long history of exploitation that surrounds it. We can contextualize the contemporary situation around land and labor only by looking at the complexities of caste, and the way it functions in contemporary institutions.
Any national and international attempts to provide funding and services to the ex-Kamaiyas, then, have to be done with a clear understanding of this social, political and economic history. National and international attempts at rehabilitation, which once again channel funds and services through organizations in Kathmandu, dominated by the upper caste elite, knowingly and unknowingly replicate the power structure that has kept the Kamaiya system in place for centuries. Only by recognizing the capacity of ex-Kamaiyas to be agents of their own future, and by supporting their own attempts at self-government and self-sufficiency, will any significant change occur.
Sushma Joshi grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal, and has a BA in International Relations from Brown University. She also writes fiction and directs documentaries.