The marginalised on the margins

Two Nepali families on either side of a path suffer from state neglect, but one is much doing better. Why?

Mantola Netuwa and husband Bijay Prakash Netuwa with their house in the background. Bijay Prakash has been to Saudi Arabia twice but earnings weren't sufficient to prevent their ancestral occupation of begging. All photos: SONIA AWALE

Bijay Prakash Netuwa, 40, has been to Saudi Arabia twice. But all the money he earned was not enough to pay off his debts, and build a house for his family of six or prevent his wife and daughter from continuing their ancestral occupation of begging.

The Netuwa people are nomadic people who roamed across northern India and are now settled in Lumbini and Madhes Provinces in Nepal’s Tarai plains. Some 56 families have made Shuddhodhan Rural Municipality here their home, a 45-minute drive from the Buddha’s nativity site.

Legally, Netuwa people do not own land but here they have built thatched huts in an area allocated by the government. But they still roam the surrounding villages with their families, striking camp to perform music and dance in return for rice and money. Afterwards, the children go to school.

“We have no land, no property, but what’s the point of raising children and educating them if they are going to end up begging like us,” points out Mantola Netuwa, 38, wife of Bijay Prakash. “Even the clothes we wear are hand me downs.”

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The Netuwa people set up camps. They still roam surrounding villages to perform music and dance in return for rice and money.

Bijay Prakash takes every day labour job he comes across, but is not enough to make ends meet. He does not yet have a voter ID. He has built a one room house, but it does not even have a real door and or windows yet. It is dark inside, the kitchen’s mud stove is outside with a makeshift roof. There is no toilet, no running water. 

Just across from the Netuwa home is a more prosperous looking concrete house. Sati Prasad Yadav, 47, and Deepa Bhurtel, 40, have a toilet, running water, cable tv and even wifi. They vote in elections, and plan to add a fridge in the kitchen.

The couple has a son in India who sends money home to his parents regularly, and makes video calls on their smartphone. They rely on Facebook and YouTube for news. Deepa is educated enough not to want to change her surname after she had an inter-ethnic marriage with Sati Prasad.

The Netuwa and Yadav-Bhurtel families are just separated by a path, but they represent the layers of marginalisation within Nepali families living in the periphery. They are coexisting, but are worlds apart.

Much of the rest of this village is made up of 200 of the 1,300 Netuwa people in Kapilvastu and Rupandehi districts bordering India. They speak Avadhi and Hindi but the younger school-going generation now also speak Nepali.

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Bijay Prakash Netuwa and Mantola Netuwa with their daughter.

At present, the government recognises Netuwa as Madhesi Dalits and the last census put their number at 2,896. But that number also includes populations in Bara, Parsa, Sarlahi and Nawalparasi who, interestingly, have identified themselves as Muslim.

The community has pinned its hopes on being listed as one of Nepal government’s endangered indigenous communities, which they believe will make them eligible for government grants and facilities.

Netuwas are doubly marginalised since they are also ostracised for their ‘begging’ tradition. The community is trying to move away from its ancestral occupation, and some are playing music at weddings and festivals instead to make a living. Others harvest wild honey or have become experts at rescuing snakes. 

“For as long as I remember, for all of our six generations, we have been begging. But for the first time my son got a job as a teacher under quota system, only to be fired three years later,” says Prahlad Netuwa of Mayadevi Municipality. “We have no voice, we have no jobs and the government in Kathmandu, K P Oli, Prachanda, they only want votes. They do not care for people on the margins like us.” 

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The Netuwa and Yadav-Bhurtel families are just separated by a path.

Krishna Netuwa, 17, completed his Grade 10 but was not able to get a certificate because he did not even have Rs3,000 for the fee. Krishna had been begging most of his life, but also does occasional construction jobs, making about Rs500 on such days. His parents do not have jobs, and he takes care of six younger sisters and a small brother. 

“People curse at us, ask us why we have reduced ourselves to begging when we can work,  but only we know the pain of having to beg despite being educated, it is killing us internally,” he says. “But we have no support system, least of all not from this uncaring government.”

Elsewhere in the neighbouring villages of Motibhar and Ganariya, almost every family has someone in the Gulf, Malaysia or India. Most of the houses here are concrete and freshly painted, some with perimeter walls and black metal gates.

Amrik Kumar, 27, is preparing to go to Qatar as a plumber, and has taken Rs300,000 to afford an air ticket and pay the recruiter. He worked in a furniture company in Malaysia for seven years previously.

“I bought some land with the money I earned in Malaysia and built a nice home for my family,” says Kumar who is now a father of a daughter and two sons as he takes us to his new house, a one-storey concrete structure. Next to the building lies a thatched roof where his elderly parents still live.

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Amrik Kumar wants to go to Qatar as a plumber.

Kumar’s oldest brother passed away due to a sudden heart attack a couple of years ago forcing his young sons to grow up early. Both of them are now working in India. The rest of Kumar’s brothers are also in the Gulf or Malaysia.

Remittance money has also allowed families here in this Chamar and Harijan Dalit communities to afford boarding schools for their sons that cost Rs1,100 per month. Girls are also educated and even outspoken, they tell visitors frankly about the lack of teachers in their colleges. They say they are getting their lessons on YouTube instead.

Most want to pursue higher studies but child marriage is still prevalent. The boys mostly drop out of school for jobs abroad.

“We still face discrimination for being Dalit, even in school, although not as visible as it was back then,” says 18-year-old Mamata Harijan. “But as girls, we are discriminated against in our own home, boys are sent to private boarding schools. We aren’t.”

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Mina Harijan, 20, with her three-year-old daughter. Her husband, also 20, is unemployed and alcoholic. Child marriage is still prevalent in these parts of Madhes.

Unlike Netuwa, Chamars are not landless but they cannot cultivate their land because of a chronic water shortage. The water in the wells is not sufficient even for daily household use, let alone irrigation. They know this is happening because those with pumps are overusing the ground water. 

Villages here have been demanding for quality education in public schools and colleges, employment for women, irrigation and quality healthcare as alternatives to labour migration at high-interest loans but the government has ignored their voices, they say.

Because the nearby health post and even the hospital do not have anything more than basic drugs, locals also have to go to India and spend a fortune on medical treatment.  

Says retired teacher Ram Prasad Baran: “This country has had so many governments, several constitutions but have they ever been for us? This is a country run by upper caste people for their own interests.”

Dalits and Muslims bear the brunt of statelessness

Their forefathers were dacoits, now this is a village full of migrant workers. Jhijha village 17km away from the Indian border in Nepal’s southern plains is going through perhaps its most dramatic demographic shift in its history. 

Too much water in the monsoon and too little in the dry season has made agriculture less vaiable for a majority of farming families here. Wages for daily labour is too little, and there are no other jobs going. 

Many have migrated to India, and those who can pay recruiters have gone to the Gulf or Malaysia. But for the largely uneducated Dalits and Muslims at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder it is a struggle.

“At the very least if the flooding in the area could be controlled, we can till our own lands and increase productivity. Maybe an embankment or irrigation,” says local Dalit leader Jay Prakash Paswan. “We have been left to our own devices, the government hasn’t given us anything, they just built us a temple. If anyone has built anything here it is because of their earning from abroad.”

Social ostracisation and discrimination make matters worse, especially for the community’s women. Child marriage is common. Parents fear that exposure to social media will lead their daughters to elope, so they marry them off early. Underage couples are unable to register their marriage and births of children, which means they cannot get citizenship papers and jobs. The nearest hospital is quite a distance away, most women give birth at home. 

For most of the young men here, labour migration is the only option they see to uplift their standard of living. But even then, they do not have money of their own to afford to go abroad. They borrow from local loan sharks who charge them very high interest rates.

“We need to pay Rs400,000 to manpower people for an overseas jobs, but we don’t make that kind of money here, and we do not have skills,” says Biswonath Paswan. “Even when migrant workers come back they are still paying interest. So we end up going to India for menial jobs.”

Rabi Paswan, 20, has finished high school but sees no prospect for himself in the village and wants to go to India to make something of himself. He says: “I have no job, nothing. Most of my friends have left, or are planning to.”

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Rabi Paswan has finished high school and wants to go to India to earn money.

Tarai is not geographically remote like Karnali or Far West but what holds the Madhes Province back is gender discrimination and an entrenched caste system. Female literacy is also lowest in the whole of Nepal.

Jhijha is made up of 85 Dalit and 20 Mahara families coexisting together. Many people in the bordering towns of Nepal’s Tarai still do not have citizenship. In Lohan, a predominantly Muslim community, a local explained with tears in his eyes how district bureaucrats demanded Rs20,000 for citizenship papers.

“I’m a farmer, I barely make enough to meet my family’s demands. How could I pay that much for something that should have been my birthright?” asks Mohammad Kalam , 43. “They said I can get a citizenship card in two days if I paid that amount. A Nepali has to pay for his own citizenship, what kind of country are we living in?”

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The increasing influence of Hindutva has increased tension between Hindu and Muslim communities in the Tarai.

Across Nepal, the voice for a Hindu state is gaining momentum with increasing influence from across the border in India where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is contesting the 2024 general election on the Hindutva platform. The effect of that is already palpable here in the border region.

Leaders in Nepal have further inflamed the situation, leading to a volatile mixture of religion and politics, and in turn, increased tension between Hindu and Muslim communities in the Tarai. 

“Never before had we faced communal discrimination, for as long as we remember Hindus and Muslims have coexisted harmoniously but now we fear for our safety,” says Mohammad Mubarak Hussain, adding that easy access to India makes it also easier to bring in pro-Hindutva elements from across the border.

He adds: “There are extremists in both religions making things worse. But this is when we really need our government to calm things down, not to take political benefit from stoking religious tensions.” 

Sonia Awale in Janakpur

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