Owning land gives former slaves self-respect

Jaglal Dagaura Tharu tends to his nursery in Kailali district.

After living most of his life as a bonded labourer, Jaglal Dagaura Tharu is building a home on a plot of land that he can finally call his own. Having started a successful nursery, the former landless family is now financially independent.

Jaglal, 57, was born into a life of indentured servitude with his parents who were bonded labourers at the house of a local zamindar landlord. This traditional system of modern-day slavery known as the kamaiya system was widespread in Nepal’s western plains until it was abolished twenty years ago.

The young Jaglal grew up working all day long looking after the zamindar’s livestock at the edge of the forest. At age 12, he was ‘lent’ to a neighbour’s household to slave away for three years before returning to his original ‘owner’ Shyamlal Chaudhari.

He got married, had a family of his own, but continued working for the landlord with four other brothers who were all also bonded labourers. With no income or property of their own, they had no way of freeing themselves from a life of slavery.

But in 1979, when the Nepal Punarvas Company started distributing land to landless squatters, Jaglal’s father filled in an application. Three years later, the family received a 0.3 hectare plot in Kailali. It was a start.

“We made a small hut but we did not have enough to eat so I remained a kamaiya for a few more years,” says Jaglal but he had already started looking at how to put the land to the best use.

In 2000, he joined the District Forest Office to work in its nursery with a salary of Rs1,500 a month. Two years later, he was contracted to set up a new nursery for the office. There, for every sapling, he used to get Rs2 and his monthly income rose to Rs25,000.

For the next 13 years, he worked at the Kailali District Forest Office, sent his son to a school with his earnings and even bought a piece of land. Jalal gets four batches of seeds every year in his nursery and makes up to Rs150,000 selling the seedlings. In 2018, he bought a motorcycle with the money he made from selling the seeds.

“When you have your own land, you reap all the benefits of your labour too, the result of my hard work is mine alone unlike when you slave away at someone else’s farm,” says Jaglal, who has managed to send a son to Romania for work, and bought another plot where he is finally building a home of his own.

In July 2000, the Nepal government abolished the kamaiya system and liberated some 32,500 bonded labourers from districts in the western plains including Dang, Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kanchanpur.

Many of the former bonded labourers now have land in their own name thanks to state sponsored land distribution. With better access to education and healthcare, their lifestyle has also improved.

Ramkumari Chaudhari, 45, was also born into a bonded labourer family near Dhangadi. Her parents married her off when she was young to a man who was also forced into a life of indentured servitude.

Ramkumari with her husband Sanjay managed to sharecrop on land from the zamindar for vegetable farming. But when the landowner saw their success, he nullified the agreement and decided to farm himself.

“If you want to make something of yourself in this country and be independent, you need a land of your own,” says Ramkumari, and the couple has managed to buy a small plot for their farm with a government grant.

What started as a small business with two pigs has now expanded into a large swine farm spread in 0.2 hectares of land which earns them Rs40,000 a month. Ramkumari also runs a profitable vegetable farm on the side so the pigs get to eat the excess vegetables and the farm benefits from fertiliser from the sty.

“We just had a hut before, but now we have a nice house. We have also bought a tractor for our farm,” says Ramkumari. “We no longer face the kind of hardships and mistreatment we did when we were kamaiya, we work without a worry. And the best thing is that your hard work earns you money.”

Ramkumari and Sanjay can now afford to send their two sons to college, but the fact that many other neighbourhood children have not been able to continue their study worries her. They risk falling back to leading a life of indentured servitude, she points out.

Radha Chaudhari, 36, of Dhangadi municipality is also getting ready to build her own house. Her husband Navaraj was a bonded labour from birth in Rajapur of Bardia and came to this town after being freed.

But when the family did not receive any land, Navraj and Radha worked odd jobs to support their family. Navraj trained hard and is now a much sought-after mason.

The government finally gave them a tiny plot of land near Dhangadi bazar, a prime location where they are planning to build their house and rent out the rest. “Our place is close to the market, which means better access to education, health facilities and jobs, we couldn’t be happier,” says Radha.

In the two decades since they were freed, many former kamaiya have found their feet. This is a success story of how former slaves have struggled to find independence, dignity and self-respect. But there are still some families who have fallen between the cracks.

With the new federal system, the rehabilitation of kamaiyas was handed over to the local governments and many families found the paperwork too confusing and complicated and faced confusion and delays.

There are 8,910 freed kamaiya families in the Kailali district, and most of them have been rehabilitated. But some 380 families are still waiting despite having an ID and land ownership documents.

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