Nothing to lose but their chains

Ten years after the government finally abolished bonded debt labour, tens of thousands of Haliyas in western Nepal continue to suffer from this form of modern-day slavery.

A person became a Haliya if the family could not pay back money borrowed from loan sharks at exorbitant interest rates. They were forced to work for free to pay back the debt, but many spent their whole lives in slavery because the interest kept piling up. The loan was then passed down to the next generation.

Even though the practice is now banned, activists say that there are about 25,000 still working as bonded labourers in some of the most remote and underserved districts of western Nepal.

Parmaram Tiruwa of Tirgaun of Baitadi was not on the list of about 17,000 Haliya who were ‘freed’, and today makes a living breaking stones by the roadside and working for his employer for a minimum wage.

Janaki and Parmaram Tiruwa of Tirgaun, Baitadi, still make their living through bonded labour. Photos: BIKRAM RAI

“There was serious under-counting while identifying Haliya, and since the government only counts those with official IDs, there has to be another data collection drive urgently,” says Rajuram Bhul, former president of Federation of National Haliya Liberation Societies. The government admits there may have been omissions, but is not inclined to do anything about it for now. “There may be people missing in our list but we are first resettling those identified as Haliya in the first phase. We do not want to take both processes forward simultaneously,” says Gopal Giri who heads the Settlement Management Department in Kathmandu.

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Slave labour, Madhav Dhungel

But even those identified as Haliya in the first count are not happy with their resettlement packages to build homes. Half of them are still waiting for compensation. The government has set the unrealistic target of resettling all remaining Haliya by the end of this fiscal year, but few are convinced.

Those who got compensation packages of Rs150,000-500,000 say the amount was insufficient to get them started in life. Ram Bahadur Parki of Dadeldhura is well known because he was the first Haliya to be freed 10 years ago.

“It is good to have my own place to live in, but with the money the government gave, I could only afford this barren land,” lamented Parki, who is luckier than most because he has a salaried job with the Federation.

The government says it is concentrating on providing land, not livelihoods for freed Haliya, but this threatens their health, education, employment and very survival. Matadevi Damai of Dipayal received seeds, hen, sewing machine and tailoring training from various charities, but life is still a struggle.

Sabitri Bhul in Sanfebagar of Achham has two sons, one of whom sends money home from India, while another studied to be an agriculture technician, but is jobless. She asks: “What is the use of education, if nobody trusts us?”

Then there are reports of some Haliya lapsing back into debt slavery, and going back to work for their old masters out of sheer desperation.

“Much progress has been made in the past ten years but it is very slow, and one reason could be because they are Dalit,” says Hari Shreepaili, former CA member and coordinator of the Committee on Haliya Rehabilitation. “

Indeed, up to 94% of Haliya are Dalit, and caste discrimination adds another layer of injustice to their lives. Back in Baitadi, Basanti Tiruwa automatically splashes her feet and drinks water from a tap set aside for Dalits, and does not touch a tap meant for the ‘upper’ castes.

In this village, there have always been two springs: one for the Dalits and one for the others. "Even today we are not allowed to touch the other water source,” Tiruwa explains.

Among Tirgaun’s 20 families, only one person has passed Grade 10. Most make a living through wage labour, and the village suffers from water scarcity. Tea shops in the bazar still do not buy their milk, victims of rape are overwhelmingly Dalit and the perpetrators from outside the community. The town has always had two temples: both called Jagannath, and even the temple of the Dalits looks dilapidated.

Says Dalit rights activist Karan Dayal: “We should evaluate the resettlement packages already handed out, and the next phase of identifying the remaining Haliya needs to start immediately.”

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Leapfrogging poverty, Vidyadhar Mallik

The two Jagannath temples of Gothalapani, Baitadi. Dalits cannot go to the big Jagannath temple (left), while their own small temple looks more dilapidated.