Madhesis who fought fierce political battles in recent years for their empowerment and identity have high expectations of the newly formed Madhesi Commission. The government is yet to give full shape to the commission, but commission Chair Vijay Kumar Datta is trying his best to meet the expectation of people of Madhes. He has been visiting all corners of Madhes to get feedback from the public about what changes they expect in the government’s policies and how they want the government to protect and promote their interests. Ram Kumar Kamat of The Himalayan Times spoke to Datta at length about his vision and work. Excerpts:
Madhesis and other marginalised communities have opposed the Public Service Commission’s job adverts seeking to recruit over 9,000 staffers in local levels. What are your views on this?
I raised the issue with PSC office bearers after I saw the advert in the media. In fact, I went with a memorandum to protest the job adverts. Although it was unusual for a head of a constitutional body to submit a memorandum to another head of a constitutional body, I did not shy away from raising the issue with PSC office bearers. The PSC says the matter is sub-judice in the Supreme Court and it will abide by the apex court’s verdict.
The PSC says that it has to take the initiative of recruiting local level staff as the government requested the same in the absence of provincial PSC and I think the PSC has a point here. My commission will wait until the apex court delivers its verdict.
Do you think rules governing the process of reservation in government jobs is bringing desired results in Madhes?
The preamble of the Act that governs formation of the Madhesi Commission stipulates that the commission will work to protect the history and culture of Madhesi society, Madhesis’ rights and empower the community. The government has clearly stated the mission of the commission and I am going to pursue these goals. There are a lot of things to do in Madhes to preserve the history and culture of the region. Many people do not even know the glorious history and culture of the region. In eastern Madhes, some of the cultures of Madhesi Janajatis, especially the Gangai, Rajbanshi and Satar have become extinct and some other cultures are on the verge of extinction. Western Madhes is also not very different regarding these issues. Many aspects of the history and culture of Awadhi and Bhojpuri speaking people in the Madhes have not been conserved. In a sense, these languages have become international languages these days, but are neglected in the place of their origin. I think the Madhesi Commission will recommend right policies to conserve the history, culture and languages of the region besides recommending right policies for economic and social empowerment of Madhesis.
It’s been almost three months since you were appointed chairperson of Madhesi Commission. What have you done thus far?
I have toured the Madhes to interact with stakeholders and conducted 79 meetings with stakeholders in Province 1 and 2. I will also visit provinces 5 and 7 to hold interactions with stakeholders there.
The information that I received during my interaction with stakeholders worries me because the Madhesi community is facing a lot of problems in multiple sectors. Let’s take the case of child marriage and sex-selective abortion.
Although the law prohibits child marriage, it is still prevalent among Dalit communities of Madhes, particularly Musahars and Doms. The government’s ban on sex-selective abortion has not deterred people. Women are still indulging in this practice within the country and when they cannot do it within the country, they go to neighbouring towns of India to abort their foetus. The impact of sex-selective abortion is so severe that only in three castes, including Dhanuk and Musahar, the number of females is slightly higher in the per thousand male-female ratio, but in all other castes the female’s number averaged 900 per 1000 males.
What feedback have you received from stakeholders about the impact of reservation policies?
Madhesi Dalits and Janajatis have expressed frustration with the current categorisation of clusters that does not sub-categorise Madhesi Janajatis and Dalits. I have interacted with Madhesi Dalits and Janajatis and they said they are unable to compete with hill Dalits and Janajatis as the latter are more advantaged because of their linguistic advantage and level of education.
They say hill Dalits and Janajatis are taking the lion’s share of reservation.
Madhesi women told me either I should try to get the reservation scrapped or ensure that there is separate reservation for Madhesi Dalits and Janajatis so that they can take advantage of reservation policies.
I have also told the PSC to allow applicants to choose their own language in the written examination. I think the PSC should come up with a new idea to address this problem.
The Madhes region was once described as the rice bowl of Nepal, but these days youths’ exodus to gulf countries and other destinations popular with foreign migrant workers has cost the Madhes region dearly because households are not getting the needed human resources to work in the fields. They depend on Indian migrant workers and I think depending on others for your own work is bad. I heard from stakeholders that the reproductive health of Nepali youths working in the Gulf region has been adversely affected due to their long exposure to abnormally high temperature. Heavy presence of security forces on both sides of the border across Madhes has negatively impacted the psychology of children there. Bihar has banned sale of alcohol and due to this ban many residents from around the Indian border come to Nepal in the evening to drink alcohol. As they get drunk, they cannot cross the border at night and thus they choose to spend the night in Nepal and that is somehow corrupting society in the Madhes.
Similarly, Nepali youths go to border towns of India to use drugs. I think Nepal and India need to think jointly on how to curb these problems along the border.
Community schools are not doing well as teachers who enjoy close relations with political leaders are often absent from classrooms. These teachers threaten elected representatives saying if they take any action against them for not honestly performing their duties in the schools, then they will ensure their defeat in the next elections. This is the main reason why local representatives also shy away from taking any punitive action against dishonest teachers. All this has adversely impacted education in community schools.
Stakeholders told me that they wanted the federal government to establish a reliable centre that could forecast extreme weather and inform the public on time about the risk of floods and landslides.
Fifteen per cent school-going children do not go to school in the border region and another 15 per cent children bunk school.
Non-availability of free sanitary pads is another problem that has badly affected the health of poor women in Madhes. Some women activists have launched a campaign to help poor women make their own sanitary pads at affordable costs. The Madhesi Commission will aid this drive.
What feedback have you received from Province 2 about improving the agriculture sector?
People of Province 2 are worried about the water table being lowered and degradation of the Chure range, which they think will lead to desertification of the region in the long run.
Province 2 government, which was supposed to irrigate land from river waters, has stated in its policies and programmes that it will focus on ground water irrigation. I think that is a wrong policy as the province is already grappling with the problem of lower water table. Department of Forest and Soil Conservation is also planting some trees in Province 2 that excessively consumes water at the cost of the residents. There are some plants promoted by Department of Forest and Soil Conservation that need 25 litres of water every day. The department needs to change its policies and plant those trees that consume less amount of water.
Remittance has helped the country economically, but migration of youths to foreign counties has led to disintegration and rift in the families. Muslim women are becoming victims of the three Talaqs (divorce).
What will you do to solve the problems of the Madhesi community?
I have decided to submit my report to the government clearly listing the problems and how those problems can be resolved.
I have been informing the government about the feedback that I have received in my interactions with the stakeholders.
Besides recommending policies to empower Madhesi communities, I will also be doing my best to establish a cultural museum in Jitpur, Bara; where people can see things that show the Madhesi army’s role in Nepal’s unification and some other aspects of Madhesi culture. Many people do not know that a Chaudhary and a Mahato had received birta land (tax exempted land) from the ruler for their contribution to the unification of Nepal.
DPR for the museum project has already been completed and I think the Nepali Army will complete the project in the next two years.
Has non- appointment of other members of your commission affected work?
I am more concerned about employees than commission members because it is the staffers that will help me do the job. Ultimately I, as chairperson of the commission will have to take a call on major issues, which I am doing now. As far as employees are concerned, we need more than 30 employees but we only have six employees at present.
I am also preparing a profile of Madhes where all the vital details such as number of high school and university graduates will be included, which I think will be a good reference for policy makers.
How will your commission act on people’s complaints?
We collect complaints from victims of human rights violations much the way the National Human Rights Commission collects such complaints. We have installed a toll free number for the public to record incidents of human rights violation. Those wishing to lodge complaints can visit our office or even electronically send the complaints to us. We can also take suo moto actions.
If a complaint does not come under our jurisdiction and if it is under some other commission’s jurisdiction, then the victim will not have to go to that commission. We will forward their complaints to the concerned bodies and those bodies will act upon those complaints.
Madhesi forces launched protests in the past to claim their rightful share in the state organs. Do you think you will be able to meet the aspirations of Madhesis?
Madhesis fought basically for three things: recognition of identity, access to resources and socio-economic empowerment. A lot of progress has been made on these fronts in recent years, but a lot of things are yet to be achieved and I will always strive to achieve the remaining goals.
A version of this article appears in print on June 24, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.