When the Kamaiya (bonded labour) system of southwestern Nepal was abolished in 2001, the government promised them land, by creating camps for the freed Kamaiya on government land here each family was supposed to receive its own small plot. Several aid agencies started work with these thousands of people – literacy, food-for-work projects, vocational training, and microfinance. During work for one of these organizations, I was interviewing freed Kamaiya and met Kalamati.
Kalamati was a bonded labourer (Kamaiya) for most of her life as her family had had a debt with a property owner for several generations. Despite being released from their inherited debts, her family and many of these people continued to struggle for their daily existence.
“Before, (as bonded laborers) we had to work from morning to night, and never had time for our own development. Now, we can make our own decisions and have our own piece of land.”
The crux of their situation was financial – anyone whose family might have had to take a loan from a landowner in the past. The system started during the settlement of the Terai by migrants from the hills. One landowner said that at the time, many of indigenous people, mostly Tharus, were interested to work the land “under the guardianship of the landowner”. When asked how much debt it took to bind a family for life, the answer was surprisingly little – Rs 15,000, 9,000, or even less. (about $300)
Even people of other ethnic or caste groups would become Kamaiya if they lost their fields and needed a loan from a ‘zamindar’ (landlord) to buy food. We interviewed a Magar ethnic woman from the hills whose family lost their land to the local moneylender and a high caste man whose parents’ fields had been lost in a flood. The system was institutionalized economic exclusion of the vulnerable who needed a loan.
Families with any size of land holding usually had a Kamaiya family to work the land in return for food and meagre ‘daily wages’ as repayment on the loans. One young man working with us had grown up with Kamaiyas working for his parents. He had questioned the inequities from a young age and joined one of the activist groups lobbying for their release. We heard a story of a generous widow who owned only a small piece of land. She borrowed money from the bank to repay a large landowner the debt of the one Kamaiya working on her land. However, when the government absolved the Kamaiya debts, she still had to repay her loan for the Kamaiyas to the bank.
Some freed Kamaiya have succeeded in earning a simple living by operating shops, learning a trade, raising livestock, or growing and selling vegetables, many have still had a difficult time earning enough to survive. Others were reported to have had to mortgage their children back into bondage as child labourers in order to obtain loans or annual salaries from which the rest of the family could buy food. Many still work on the landlord’s fields but now for regular wages of Rs. 70-100 per day. One man we had interviewed said he calculated that in the past as a Kamaiya, his father had earned only three rupees per day.
In one camp, the men told of working in a sugar factory in Bardiya where they earned Rs 20 per day. The mill was owned by the family of a four-time prime minister. How can Nepal ever change the relationships between the rich and the poor when its leaders continued to assume an attitude of ruling rather than governing and serving the people.
Other people told of having to go out in the fields at night to beat the crops and scarred away insect pests; they had to pay for the kerosene in the lanterns themselves – even though it was the landlord’s crop. When they did not have enough money for kerosene, the landlord loaned it to them, adding to their already overwhelming debts.
The oppression went further for the women expected to work in the homes of some property owners. “It was much harder for the women,” said one older woman. She went on to describe how the ‘tradition’ of young women being expected to sleep with some landlords on the night of their wedding, usually to another Kamaiya, had led her daughter to go join the insurgency as her only means of rebelling. It was 2002. The insurgency was spreading over rural Nepal. We had to leave.