It was a relief to escape the hectic pace of city life in Kathmandu for the more soporific charms of Butwal, a large-ish town in Nepal’s western Terai, or lowlands. Stacey and I hit the road for a meeting with ten grassroots Dalit NGOs working throughout Nepal. One of our major tasks this summer is to explore the possibility of establishing an advocacy network composed of these groups and develop a proposal that will help them produce information and advocate effectively at the national level.
As our minibus wound down the foothills into the verdant lowlands, I fell into a trance induced by the electric-green rice paddies. Yoked oxen ploughed the fields while brightly clothed women bent down, babies bundled close to their backs, to plant the rice crop. Naked toddlers ran around mud-wall, thatched roof houses, kicking a deflated soccer ball. This, I thought, is a life so difficult and alien from my own that it’s hard to escape feeling like a voyeur, like I was bussing through the pages of National Geographic.
But, with over 86% of the population living in rural areas, this is the reality faced by the majority of Nepalis. Sometimes, cloistered in the urban bubble of Kathmandu, this is hard to believe. And while this rural scene stuck me as suffering and hardship, in reality, to be able to till your own fields is a real privilege in this country.
Some 1 million (of ~4.5 million) Nepali households have no land of their own and about half of these cultivate a landlord’s holdings with the hopes of establishing tenancy rights. Not surprisingly, Dalits comprise a disproportionate percentage of the landless ranks. According the Asian Human Rights Commission, Dalits own less than 1% of the country’s cultivable land, despite the fact that most Dalits live in rural areas. Moreover, the majority of the Dalit population is functionally landless, meaning that their plot is not of sufficient size or quality to provide basic subsistence.
Just land distribution may not be as “sexy” as democratic elections, free press, and respect for civil and political rights, but it is equally important. Indeed, the current situation of gross inequity plays directly into Maoist hands. The rebel force effectively controls most of rural Nepal, where it actively confiscates and redistributes plots of land. Their army’s footsoldiers are recruited from the landless, largely Dalit, mass.
For the Dalit rights movement, land reform is important because it will have the most immediate impact on the quality of life of the poorest and lowest sub-castes. Relatively better-off Dalits face dehumanizing treatment and rampant discrimination, but poor, landless, rural Dalits lack fundamental food security.
Without land reform, policies like education and employment reservations won’t reach the very poorest Dalits, who are deprived of basic subsistence. There is a need to address caste discrimination holistically—unfortunately, no magic bullet exists and a single policy will not do the job.
Posted By Nicole Cordeau (Nepal)
Posted Jul 27th, 2006