Six months after successfully forcing the government to free them from the vicious cycle of indentured servitude, ex-kamaiyas (former Tharu bonded agricultural labourers) in western Nepal have made history again. According to data available as of 24 January, from the early morning hours of Thursday, 18 January, 2001, about 3000 ex-Kamaiya families in Kailali and Kanchanpur districts started to move peacefully from 51 different makeshift camps into various undesignated chunks of government-owned land.
While doing so, contrary to what appeared in some Kathmandu-centric 'national' newspapers, the ex-kamaiyas were careful not to encroach upon forest land, not to chop down trees and not to build their shelters on privately owned or otherwise contested properties. This is borne out by the fact that even after five days no one had been arrested, and neither had the local administration issued any statement opposing their actions. Except for incidents here and there of the few angry villagers who wanted to either keep the open spaces open for grazing purposes or create community forests, the public, on the whole, has been quite supportive of the former kamaiyas' actions.
A total of almost 1,500 bighas was occupied, after which the homeless former-kamaiyas parcelled out 10 katthas (around six and half ropanis) of land under the supervision of their designated leaders among all their families. So far 19 open spaces have been taken over in Kailali and Kanchanpur. In Balchowr of Baliya village development committee in central Kailali, up to 500 families moved in from various camps-clearing shrubs, dividing up the land, building sheds and even assigning names to newly emerging bastis.
Arguably, this is the first time in Nepal's history that thousands of free, poor, indigenous yet landless people, possessing no skills other than agricultural, have issued a frontal challenge to the government. Their challenge was that the government should either help them settle permanently in these newly occupied areas or soon show them where land is available.
Either way, the ex-kamaiyas want the government to fulfill its own promise to speedily rehabilitate them. The reason behind the drastic step was that only after each free family owns 10 katthas can concerned NGOs, INGOs, and other bilateral and multilateral agencies move in to assist the government in rehabilitating the ex-kamaiyas with programmes such as nutrition, construction, health care, education, skill-development and income generation. There would be no purpose to continue to hold rehabilitation programmes for ex-kamaiyas while they were living as internal refugees in cramped spaces in their own ancestral land.
Explaining the reason for the drastic move, Yagya Raj Chaudhary, the BASE activist who helped spark off the movement to free kamaiyas last May, says, "No other pressure tactics seemed to work. We sent a letter to the Prime Minister to demand land. We lobbied our MPs. We sought help from the press. We organised sit-ins in the offices of the local District Development Committee and the Chief District Officer. We even blocked traffic on the East-West highway for a day. Now that we are breaking the law by occupying government-owned land, maybe something will happen."
Activists also argue that with enough national problems of its own, the government would not really bother about looking into the issue of the former bonded labourers most of whom were driven out of their landlord's estates last July. "We decided to start occupying government-owned land as an act of peaceful civil disobedience," says Dilli Bahadur Chaudhary, President of Backward Society Education (BASE) who is also a 1994 Reebok International Human Rights Award Winner. "The first phase of our movement was about achieving unconditional freedom from debt bondage. That, we accomplished. All we are doing now is making it easier for the government to come to a decision. Either show the promised land to the ex-kamaiyas or help them settle permanently in these occupied spaces."
"The government said that it would give us land by Dasain," adds Raj Deo Chaudhary, an ex- kamaiya who leads the Kamaiya Struggle Committee. "That did not happen. Then we were told that we would get land by Maghi [mid-January]. That did not happen either. Now that we have moved to the open space near Manehara river [not far from the town of Dhangadi] and have measured our shares of 10 katthas each, we are not going to move to any other place. We have always done nothing but farming, and we are anxious to start farming on our own land for our own families."
(Ashutosh Tiwari is affiliated with Kathmandu's Martin Chautari and is presently assisting activists leading the kamaiya movement.)