16 May, 2009


Sushma Joshi, Kathmandu Post

Perhaps the answer lies in the conversation my travel partner is having with a man he's just met in the airplane. "The man was run down right here. The truck backed into him and killed him even though he was only injured slightly," says the old man. "Yes, it's that law," says my friend. "It's cheaper to run down somebody in an accident than pay compensation for their medical expenses." Herein, I think, lies the clue to Nepal's poverty. In Nepal, it is cheaper to run down a human being dead than follow the course of universal humane behavior and treat somebody who's been injured through a manmade accident.

And the accidents here are many. The most tragic accident, of course, is that done to the Dalit community. Fifty lakh live in Nepal, and eighty percent of them are landless. Rather than pick them up and heal the historical injury, Nepal prefers to run them down, putting the state machinery in reverse and backing the heavy vehicle of official bureaucracy into them till they lie down and die.

Of the thousands who lost their homes under the bleached-bone white sand of the Koshi barrage, another man-made accident in which the man tampered and reversed the course of nature, the most vulnerable are still to be housed and fed. Many are of Dalit communities. "Saptari is the district with the most number of Dalits in Nepal," Bhola Paswan tells me. Bhola, a grassroot journalist who reports on Madeshi Dalit issues, lives in Kanchanpur, close to the epicenter of the flood. His diary is full of poignant stories which never make it out of the local level.

The population census of 2001 says Saptari had 1 lakh 25 thousand Dalits. And yet, despite the population density (or perhaps because of it), Saptari's Dalits remain oppressed.

Consider the case of a Dom family who live in Kamalpur VDC, Bhola tells me. The family of 8 lived in a village which burnt down in its entirety during Holi. Everybody else rebuilt -- but the Doms, considered the lowest of castes, were not allowed. The reason? The Doms had a house in the very outskirts of the village, but as the population rose and the village expanded, they ended up at the center, too close to school teachers and party cadres. This, sadly, was the reason for their eviction. The village tolerated them on the margins but they couldn't imagine them at the center.

Despite repeated visits to the police station, Bhola Paswan says, the police are reluctant to press a caste discrimination case. They are willing to do a "kut-pit mudda" -- physical assault case, but will not touch the word "caste discrimination." Although the government is supposed to represent victims of caste discrimination against the victimizer, these cases are rarely filed. "I debated with the inspector for an hour and a half," he says. "Is this my job? There's nobody to speak for Dalits, so we journalists end up doing it."

Bhola recounts another story that reeks of injustice. Khattar Sarvariya, a Dalit man, has been working as a peon at the VDC office of Kanchanpur for over thirty years. He had a stroke that left him paralyzed three years ago. His wife got his Rs.2200 job in his stead. Other peons who joined after him were accepted as permanent employees, while he, despite his seniority, was considered "asthaiyi" (temporary), and is ineligible to claim any compensation. The irony doesn't just come from the fact that he has served tea for thirty-four years to political party members who come to the VDC to debate which just social service cause should be eligible for the VDC funds.

It also comes from the fact that the land on which the VDC office stands was given up by Khattar's father-in-law, who was cajoled and intimidated by the Panchayat regime to donate the land with promises of new land elsewhere. New land never materialized. Today Khattar continues to work as a peon on the same land that should have been his, unable to get compensation to redeem not just his historical seizure of property but also his three decade service to democracy. "Do the political parties who drink out of the tea of his hands think about the oppression of his case?" asks Bhola.

Bhola says his family life has suffered due to his incessant service to the public. His mother almost died when he was on recent tour to Kathmandu, which made him realize how much he'd prioritized societal responsibility over family ones. "Today," says Bhola, "I take better care of my mother. I stop by her house in the afternoon and check to make sure she's taken her medication." He has worked from seven am to seven pm most days for the last seven years. Stringers at the grassroots level are often paid Rs.100 per news item that may have taken a day or so to collect -- and at times friends at the district level may run the news without informing the grassroots that their stories have already aired or been printed, thereby depriving them of even that tiny honorarium. For many years, he worked as a stringer and the money he received barely covered his phone, fax, motorcycle and other expenses. The Rs.2000 given to him by an NGO gave him just enough to keep going. "Grassroots journalists fill the newspapers, but we are paid less than day laborers," he says. Today, he is a desk reporter for Naya Patrika and makes a modest salary.

Bhola's stories have won awards -- the Sancharika Samuha women's journalist group gave him their annual award for his story of a woman who was made to leave the country and exit the border to India after being severely beaten up by 150 men in a Panchayat style meeting. The woman's crime? Abandoned by her husband (who was Indian and lived across the border), she had returned home to Nepal to her natal village. A single woman must be a woman of low moral character, went the prevailing judgment -- leading 150 brave Nepali men to beat a single woman until she ended up at the hospital.

Despite unceasing service to the public, Bhola and others face the challenges of many of Nepal's journalists -- low pay, lack of respect, threats to physical safety.

Journalists are not just news gatherers but informal justice providers, and often the only sole advocates, for marginalized groups and people. A happy medium, I think, may be to support grassroots folks who provide critical social justice investigations state benefits -- make them employees of the Dalit and Women Commission, and let them write articles as part of their work. My friend argues this is wrong -- I am looking at a humongously unwieldy bureaucracy that would drive Prachanda crazy were he still at the helm. Meanwhile, the Working Journalist Act is still to be implemented, and many young men and women like Bhola continue to act as advocate, social action volunteers and investigators combined for a pittance (although a few others have entered the conference circuit and make more than their fair share for rather sloppy and sometimes plagiarized work). Perhaps the INGOs may think of a happy medium in which committed journalists can continue to write news but also be paid a working salary.

In Saptari, Bhola is on his way to visit the Dom family. Soon, he will advocate for other Dalit families who have no other people to advocate for them at the local level.

As we trundle back past the barren-white Sahara of the Kosi disaster, I see the first patches of green sprouting on the white sand. Surely if we can overcome this terrible flood with Biblical undertones, we can overcome the manmade disaster of caste discrimination? Nepal has been declared a caste free zone multiple times by multiple governments, and yet when it comes to action many of the 50 lakh Nepali Dalit citizens who do Nepal's most productive work -- tailoring, leatherwork, iron casting, sanitation, music -- remain injured through a manmade disaster. Isn't it time to offer compensation?

(Sushma Joshi's book "End of the World" is available in Mandala, Vajra, Pilgrims, United and other bookstores.)

Posted on: 2009-05-16 01:51:04

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