Muktikot still waiting for liberation

Two decades after Maoists promised prosperity, this Dalit village in Nepal has been forgotten

Most of the young girls in the village are already mothers. All photos: DHANU BISHWAKARMA

When he was a teenager years ago during the war, the Maoists who held sway over the Dalit village of Muktikot in western Nepal promised Man Bahadur Bishwakarma liberation and prosperity.

Many like Man Bahadur believed in that utopia, and took up arms like others from the downtrodden Dalit community here. They even renamed the village Muktikot (Fort Freedom) from its original Dumkot. ‘Dum’ is a derogatory term used to address the Dalit community.

Muktikot is spread across a steep mountainside with unirrigated terrace farms. Most of the men migrate to India for seasonal work, others never come back. The women left behind had to walk hours for water, and since there were no roads then, travelling to town for government subsidised rice took at least a week.

“The Maoists told us that we would find jobs right here in the village, that every household would have tap water, they promised an end to caste discrimination,” recalls Man Bahadur. “That is why I joined the revolution in Grade 10.”

He is talking while walking up a steep trail three hours from Muktikot, where his family has been living in a cattle shed after a landslide damaged his house in 2021.

Th remote village of Muktikot in Bajura district in far west Nepal.

Most of Muktikot’s young population joined the Maoists, convinced that changing the name of the village was proof this was going to be a real revolution.

Eighteen years after the end of the conflict, the only thing that has changed for the nearly 2,300 Dalits in Muktikot is the name of their village. Not that there has not been some progress. There are now motorable roads and residents do not have to walk as far as Kalikot or Dailekh to get a sack of rice. More essentials are available in local shops for those with cash.

Man Bahadur himself migrates to India to earn money, and had just returned for a break when we talked to him. “I fought for the Maoists in the hope that I would not have to go to India for work, but there are still no jobs here,” he says. “The Maoists promised a mirage.”

Men in Muktikot preparing to migrate to India for work.

Birth and death

Manbuja Bishwakarma has just turned 20, the minimum legal age of marriage in Nepal. But she has been married since age 13, giving birth to five children, three of whom died.

“The babies just died one after the other,” recalls Manbuja, who just had to have more babies in the hope that some would survive.

Read also: How climate crisis adds to child marriage in Nepal, Sonam Lama

Her neighbour, 30-year-old Lalkala Bishwakarma has given birth eight times, and only four babies survived. There are women in Muktikot who gave birth to as many as 14 children, and there is not a single mother in Muktikot who has not lost a baby.

Lalkala Bishwakarma

Tilakhuni Bishwakarma, 40, had 10 children, and eight of them survived. Sitting outside her home, she is now surrounded by her grandchildren.

Despite Nepal’s total fertility rate now dropping to near replacement level, here in Muktikot infant mortality is still high and this means women have more babies in the hope that some will survive. Child marriage and low female literacy contribute to the high rate of maternal and infant mortality.

Community health records show that even in 2021, eight out of 45 infants born in Muktikot died. While Nepal’s average infant mortality rate dropped to 33 for every 1,000 babies born in 2022,  the rate was 178 in Muktikot.

“The most prominent among the many reasons for the high maternal deaths are early marriage and frequent pregnancy,” says Janaki Neupane, a community nurse in Muktikot.  

Four years ago, Bachchi Bishwakarma died of a hemorrhage while giving birth to her second child at home. Her husband Gorkha says she had barely survived giving birth to their first child.

“I was home alone that day, and I took care of her,” Gorkha recounts. “Our child was born, but my wife bled to death.”

Tilakhuni Bishwakarma

Birthing centres were opened in Muktikot last year to address high infant and maternal deaths, but Nurse Neupane says it still lacks basic equipment and budget.

Nirmala Bishwakarma got married when she was 13 and was  pregnant soon after. She had her first baby, but soon got pregnant again. “Birth brings death here,” Nirmala, now 20, says simply.

Nirmala and her children all look emaciated and she weighs only 33kg. Bajura’s district headquarters in Martadi provides nutritional allowance, but Nirmala cannot afford to travel that far to get it.  

Nepal’s development indicators, including lifespan (page 1) and poverty rate have shown dramatic improvements over the past three decades. But here in Muktikot, hunger stalks the land. In fact, a recent survey showed that 95% of women, children and young adults in Muktikot are undernourished. Most men, on the other hand, look well fed because they are mostly away in India for work.  

Only 12% of the land in Bajura is arable, but even then there is lack of irrigation, frequent droughts, and now climate breakdown contributing to the lack of food. “The harvests are just not enough to sustain the families,” says Bharat Bahadur Rokaya, chair of Swamikartik Khapar Rural Municipality where Muktikot is located.

Here in the rugged mountains of northern Bajura bordering Humla and Mugu, the families grow millet, maize, and wheat, but Nirmala Bishwakarma says the harvests hardly last a month. “If it was not for the subsidised rice we would have empty stomachs,” she says.

Hindrances to hygiene

Down the mountain from Muktikot, the green waters of the Karnali River are visible. But the 400 Dalit households here have to share just three community taps for drinking water. Half the households do not have toilets, and defecation in the open is common.

Donor agencies have helped build toilets, but these are mostly used to store fodder because there is no water. “How can we use water for the toilets where there isn’t enough for drinking?” asks Ward chair Ajay Bishwakarma.  

Families have to walk for four hours to bathe and do washing. “We do not wash our clothes for months on end,” says Kushi Bishwakarma, 40.

Muktikot hygiene

The lack of water has compromised hygiene and sanitation in the village, resulting in diseases like diarrhoea, allergies, and other health issues, especially among children.

Lack of water in the village has also led to uterine prolapse among the women in Muktikot since they primarily face the task of ferrying heavy jars of water from the communal taps to their houses

The ‘One house, one tap, one toilet’ campaign introduced by the rural municipality this year hopes to solve water-related issues for Muktikot residents. But that is yet another election promise.

Testing times

This underserved village is not just affected by structural inequality and state neglect. In 2021, a landslide swept away 54 houses in Muktikot, and most families lost homes and what little arable land they had.

“Earlier, we at least had a house to live in, now we don’t even have that,” says Muktikot resident Asal Bishwakarma. “We have been living with relatives since. How will we survive?”

More than two years after the landslide, not a single house in the village has been rebuilt. Each family was allocated Rs500,000 in relief on an instalment basis, with aid from all three tiers of government.

Muktikot landslide
Muktikot landslide

Asal has only received Rs35,000 so far, and has spent it all on buying food. No one knows where the promised money went.

Muktikot residents now want their entire village relocated somewhere safer.  The local government agrees that resettlement is necessary, but it was unable to find a suitable alternative.

“It is not possible to resettle such a large number of people at one go,” says Bajura MP Badri Pandey. “We also cannot create jobs for all of the population at once.”

Muktikot might have been declared liberated on paper during a war fought in the name of Nepal’s downtrodden, but this Dalit village is emblematic of promises not kept.

Looking around the landslide scarred village he has spent half a century of his life in, Muktikot’s Dhanajay Bishwakarma laments, “We are not even considered humans by the state.”

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