Imagine a group of people, thousands strong, who are constantly told they are of no human value; a community who can be beaten at will, whose women other men are free to rape without fear of punishment or retribution. Imagine a people who have come to believe what is said of them, to accept what has been their lot for generations.
Sit down with the Kamaiya of Nepal and imagine no longer. For until ten years ago this was precisely their lot. They were bonded labourers, tied to their employer/owners without thought of what alternative there could be.
"If I think back to my bondage I never thought of myself as human, that I had rights to live independently. So how could I argue with the landlord?" asks Khrishi Devi Tharu, now chairperson of the Women’s Awareness Group in her Freed Kamaiya settlement.
There was physical violence, sexual violence, but we always thought we had to obey the master. I remember one girl who was repeatedly raped by her master, brother of an important leader, who, after each time blamed the woman for being characterless and that she should be killed.
Birbahadur Tharu recall his past: “As a bonded labourer I worked for the landlord from cockcrow till two bells in the morning. Even when I fell ill I had to beg for medical treatment. I was bonded because my parents were bonded. I was sent to school by my parents only up to Class 3 at the age of 9 when I had to start tending the landlord’s cattle.
Annual pay for a bonded labourer was 12 bags of paddy rice a year, one a month. We had to manage everything, food, clothing, medical treatment and everything else. We ended up without enough food.
At the end of the year the Kamaiya family usually ended up owing their landlord money, what he alleged to have contributed or lent them as an advance outweighing the rice that was their agreed payment. A deepening debt burden. These semi-slaves, bonded labourers mostly carrying the surname Tharu of a sub-clan of one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups, had two choices – stay with their current landlord for another year – always January till January – or seek another farmer employer who would pay off their existing debts only to add them to their new account.
“We Kamaiyas didn’t own anything so we always had to search for a landlord to work for. If we went for wage labour we didn’t even have shelter. Where would we stay at night?” says Krishni Devi Tharu about a people who, generation after generation, were denied contact with the world outside the farm, not formally slaves yet enslaved nonetheless.
Liberation – the word they always use, these previously hidden citizens of an independent country – came in 2001. It came by law from the government who conceded the wrong that had been done to them for generations after a struggle by the Kamaiya and international non-government organisations which had supported them, prominent among them ActionAid.
More than 16,000 Kamaiya families live in just 5 of Nepal’s 70+ districts. Before liberation they had the country’s lowest adult literacy rate and less than 25% of children received any schooling. Now they claim 98% enrolment though there is still a notable drop-out rate as children progress through the schools.
The government has given most of the families a small plot of land, often in poor, monsoon flood-prone areas and too small for most to make much of, though there are success stories like that of Sadyha Persad Tharu. “I was bonded for many years. I was sent to school but the landlord deducted the fees from what he paid my father. After liberation we got land from the government and training from this NGO, RKJS, especially for vegetable farming so now we can provide for ourselves. Bondage is a past memory. Now I have a half acre for seasonal vegetable and rainy season rice. With better irrigation and tools I could make more profit but this is OK. I want us to have a farmers’ group here for marketing and more profit. Already the vegetables give me a profit of between R10,000 to 15,000 a month (€100-150) and I can even afford satellite tv. It’s all like a dream come true. Our liberation came through outside help as well as the efforts of the Kamaiyas ourselves.”
But past memories linger still. Sadyha’s father, Bandhu, adds:
When I was a bonded labourer I didn’t have time to help tend to my children, to see they had enough food. I was being threatened and beaten by the landlord because no matter how hard we worked it was never enough for the landlord who also claimed we had used credit and paid us even less. Sadhya here has become a good farmer but I made no contribution to that because I was unable to give him any time. He’s had training from outside and what he has achieved is his own initiative.
Action Aid Ireland, through Action Aid Nepal, assists the local social justice organisation RKSJ, the Tharu People’s Service Centre, and the assistance from Ireland through Action Aid’s sponsorship programme and Irish Aid’s house-building scheme is remembered by the recipients. Krishni Devi Tharu says:
We have hopes of living a dignified life in the future. In my own case changes came in myself and change was assisted by other agencies. Now the Prime Minister himself looks at me and I can talk to him and other officials. I always remember the vital role in our liberation played by Action Aid.Also I want to mention the housing assistance (provided by Irish Aid). Previously our houses needed renovation every year at a cost of R30-50,000. Now that money is saved and it helps a lot with our economic empowerment allowing us live a more dignified life.
Birbahadur Tharu highlights the work done and the goal yet to be achieved:
Liberation was not easy. We mobilised and faced difficulties from landlords and police. But with the help of outside agencies we were successful. Now we wake in the morning and go to work as daily labourers from 8 till 5 and then have time for our children whom we can now educate. My three are in Classes 10, 9 and 5. I hope they will do better than me. The government has given us each a small piece of land for growing rice and dry season vegetables. It still does not provide enough and that is why we work as daily labour and unfortunately many Kamaiya have to emigrate to find work.
And that’s why Action Aid Ireland will continue to support the Freed Kamaiya.