Dalit movement for land rights

Hira Vishwakarma:

A few weeks ago CSRC, an non-governmental organisation working in the field of land rights of the peasants and marginalised people, organised an interaction programme among policy-makers, farmers, landless labourers and those concerned with the land rights.

The most victimised community represented were Dalits and Kamaiyas. Likewise, Dalits deprived of land rights represented the landless from the Terai and the tillers from western Nepal. This clearly shows how severe the problem of land rights among Dalits is in Nepal. Unfortunately, there were only few Dalits and their organisations to witness the interaction. This clearly indicates that Dalit movement has not taken off yet in Nepal. The reservation policy in India has been in place for the last 50 years, which has been benefiting the Dalits. As a result, a middle class of Dalits has been created. However, the criticism of such practice is its failure to benefit the poor and landless Dalits and tribes. Professor of Delhi University Dr D Prempati, in his latest deliberation in Kathmandu, revealed that out of 10,000 Dalits only one can get a job through reservation and this policy alone cannot solve the immense problems of Dalits, and there is an urgent need for a policy to increase these people’s access to land.

It may not be relevant to talk about the reservation as it is not in place at the moment in Nepal but it is surprising that no one is even discussing the land rights of Dalits and organising them for a movement. Directly or indirectly, the traditional occupation of Dalits is associated with land. They get their wages in the form of grain for providing their services throughout a year that is popularly known as Balighare Pratha. Likewise, to repay the loan and interest of moneylenders, a Dalit has to plough their field, which passes on from generation to generation. This is called Haliya Pratha, similar to Kamaiya system. The government has already abolished the Kamaiya system whereas it is a pity that the Haliya system has not come up for debate as yet. The deprivation and marginalisation of Dalits can be attributed to land that has been clearly mentioned in the Human Development Report 2004 published by UNDP. According to that report, 24.44 per cent of the total population is landless. In the hills 15.32 per cent of Dalits are landless whereas in the Terai the figure is 43.98 per cent. 1.2 million out of three million Dalit people are forced to live on off-farm income that is very unpredictable and seasonal. Therefore, to let them live a dignified life through a reliable source of income is a great challenge both for the government and any Dalit movement.

If the issue of land rights is looked upon through the traditional system, it is legitimate to call for Tharus, Terai Dalits and other indigenous groups to have their rights established on the land. Though Nepal has embraced a modern state system, it has failed to implement the land reforms of 1967 and the declaration of the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in 2002.

The question of land bank has been under discussion in which the government intends to buy the land from landlords and sell it to the poor at an affordable price. But this seems nothing but a way to compensate those landlords whose land has been captured by the rebels. There is an immediate need for a reformatory Dalits movement in Nepal to take up land rights as a serious issue and start a systematic movement to establish the land rights of thousands of landless Dalits and Haliyas.