KAMAL RAJ SIGDEL
When the government announced the “liberation” of all Haliyas (tillers) from bonded labour in 2008, Lachhuwa Mahar, 52, was one among 83,000 whose happiness saw no bounds.
“It was probably the most joyous moment in my life,” says Mahar, whose family has been bonded labourers for the last three generations in the remote Daduldhura district of Far Western Nepal. “We were liberated and free of all our debts. They said we would be rehabilitated. We were also assured of compensation for the free labour we provided to our landlords. It was great news for us at that moment.”
The happiness, however, was short-lived. The decision turned out to be a hollow promise as it was taken in haste and without plans on how to rehabilitate the freed Haliyas. “We realised soon after that there was nothing to be happy about. Let alone land, we did not even receive compensation for our labour. It’s been over two years and nothing has changed,” says Ram Bahadur Parki, another freed Haliya.
The government’s seemingly noble decision instead promoted antagonism between the Haliyas and their landlords—right after the Haliya system was outlawed, landlords were left off the hook as they were not held responsible for their labourers’ rehabilitation. The decision came as liberation to the landlords rather than the Haliyas, who were left without jobs or shelter.
“I had nowhere to go as the government could not provide me with an alternative shelter and my landlord sold his land to another man who would not entertain us,” says Mahar, breadwinner of a family of eight.
Thousands of freed Haliyas live in complete destitution today, and their stories continue to create irony vis-à-vis the claims of “big
political changes” following the 2006 democratic uprising.
No political will
Very little has been done since then Peace Minister and Maoist leader Janardhan Sharma announced the liberation of the Haliyas after inking a five-point deal. “Haliya rehabilitation has been delayed under different pretexts. But the real problem is the lack of political will,” says Raju Bhul, Chairman of the National Free Haliya Society Federation. “If things don’t progress soon, there will be no alternative but to take to the streets.”
These reactions are understandable. Two and half years since the decision, the government does not even have a mechanism for the Haliya rehabilitation. The current budget has allocated Rs. 6.4 million for this cause, but officials are confused as to which body would mobilise the funds. For the time being, the Mukta Kamaiya Rehabilitation Implementation Committee under the Ministry of Land Reform is taking charge.
Coordinator of the Committee Sri Ram Pant says that since the Haliya rehabilitation project is a political issue the bureaucracy alone can do little unless there is a consensus. Pant also points out to some technical problems—lack of land is a serious problem in rehabilitating the landless, he says. “We have virtually run out of free land that can be distributed to the landless. We are already facing problems rehabilitating the remaining ex-Kamaiyas, who were freed a decade ago.”
Experts on land reform, however, do not buy this argument. “There is enough land to distribute. What is lacking is political consensus,” says Som Paneru, an expert on land reform and Kamaiya issues. “For instance, there is over 6,000 bighas of land that belongs to Nepal Kapas Bikas Nigam that has remained uncultivated in Kailali. Thousands of landless people can be rehabilitated there.” What is also lacking according to Paneru is pressure from the civil society. The civil society organisations did it well when they raised the Haliya issue, “but they failed to follow up,” he says.
Experts studying bonded labour issues concede that the government’s 2008 announcement to liberate the Haliyas without preparation for their rehabilitation was a “second blunder.”
The government had made a similar mistake when it freed the Kamaiyas without working out how they would be rehabilitated. The hasty decision in 2000 created a serious problem for some 30,000 freed Kamaiyas. The Kamaiya problem has been festering for over a decade now as some 6,000 of them are still homeless and it is not sure if they will ever be rehabilitated in the true sense of the term. The same mistake was repeated in 2008 with the Haliyas, pushing some 20,000 of them towards further uncertainty.
It does not take much to understand that these ad-hoc decisions are taken for political gimmicks. “Once they come to power, political leaders often seem to be in a hurry to make popular announcements lest they miss the opportunity to gain credits for welfare,” argues Suresh Chaudhary, a social science researcher from the Tharu community.
Besides, officials at Singha Durbar say the government made another mistake when it collected the baseline data of Haliyas without making the landlords responsible for their rehabilitation. The landlords are unwilling to cooperate at this stage—none of the 20,000 forms filled up by Haliyas contains landlords’ signature expressing commitment to help. To many, this was a serious oversight.
What’s cooking in Singha Durbar?
Over the past two and a half years, the Land Reform Ministry and the Peace Ministry, in consultation with some leaders from the freed Haliya community have accomplished some meaningful tasks the new guard in Singha Durbar can build upon, if taken as a priority.
A database of around 20,000 freed Haliyas from 12 districts prepared by the Peace Ministry is undoubtedly an important achievement. This database, after verification, could provide a basis for issuing ID cards to around 83,000 members of the Haliya families, claims Sri Hari Paili, who coordinated the database collection project. “If the new government could at least distribute ID cards to the Haliyas based on the database, that would be commendable,” he says.
Legislation is another area that the Land Reform ministry is currently working on. Officials are mulling over an alternative faster route to a law for Haliya rehabilitation to be enacted through the parliament. According to Coordinator Pant, the Land Reform Ministry is planning to introduce some quick and interim rehabilitation packages through the executive order of the Cabinet.
“We are now trying to narrow down to a viable modality of rehabilitation. Once it is agreed, we could immediately start providing relief packages.”
At present, the ministry’s proposal presents four possible modalities:
The first modality proposes to adopt the package that was used to rehabilitate Kamaiyas. That is to provide certain land (10 katthas in the tarai/10 ropanis in the hills) to each of the Haliya families.
The second modality requests the landlords themselves to contribute their land to build houses of the liberated Haliyas.
The third modality proposes to rehabilitate the tillers through the government’s Janatko Awash Yojana (People’s Housing Project) implemented in some eastern Tarai districts. This package includes relocation of the tillers in the housing and skill trainings to help the tiller find new jobs.
The fourth modality proposes to grant Rs. 100,000 to each Haliya family to buy land of their choice.
The Haliyas are in favour of the first modality. But having failed to find land to rehabilitate freed Kamaiyas, the government is more comfortable with the fourth. As discussions over the proposed modalities proceed, experts believe it is crucial that the tillers and the government make the right decision, for whatever be the options, the tillers would always be better off if their relocation is avoided, “for that changes existing labour dynamics and doubles their difficulties,” says Paneru.
(Originally published on