NEPAL: Former bonded labourers appeal for help from the government
Many Kamaiya families live in absolute poverty in camps such as this one in the village of Kalika, near the Bardiya highway about 570 km far west of Kathmandu
Kathmandu, 3 January 2007 (IRIN) - Hundreds of former bonded labourers, who were freed from slavery nearly six years ago in western Nepal, are appealing to the government for their proper rehabilitation, reintegration, and financial support.
Known as 'Kamaiyas', 500 of the former labourers have been staging their protest in the capital Kathmandu over the past week, and are now planning to seize government lands regardless of the consequences, they claim.
"We will now have to resort to the hard way as that is the only option left for us now," said 28-year-old Sukhdaya Chaudhary, a member of the Freed Kamaiya Society, which has been bringing hundreds of Kamaiyas to the capital from the countryside to help them fight for their rights.
The former Kamaiyas belong to the Nepalese ethnic group, the Tharus, who were in bonded labour for more than 40 years.
Before the government banned slavery in 2000, more than 100,000 Tharus, including women and children, were working as bonded labourers, according to the NGO, the Backward Society Education (BASE) – responsible for spearheading the movement against slavery.
But despite the ban, there have been few improvements in living conditions, and the majority of former slaves continue to live below the poverty line with no source of income, according to the group.
"Most of our families are still landless and are sleeping in makeshift huts without any roof. Our children suffer the most," said Pasupati Chaudhary, president of the Freed Kamaiya Society.
There are around 32,000 freed Kamaiya families in the five districts of Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dang (more than 500 km west of Kathmandu) in southern Nepal. So far only 12,000 of the families have received land, while the remaining 20,000 have been deprived of any support from the government, said Chaudhary.
During the early 1960s the Tharus were evicted from their lands by the high-caste migrants from the hill areas who wanted to settle in the rich fertile lands of southern Nepal.
The new settlers used violence and tricked the illiterate Tharu community into signing false loan documents, using their lands as collateral. In the process, most of the Tharus lost the land they had farmed for generations.
In order to buy seeds, food and other goods, the Tharus began taking loans from their new landlords. They were then obliged to work on the agricultural land they used to own until they had repaid their debts. Most never managed to pay off their loans as the interest rates were constantly rising. The Tharus were therefore kept in perpetual servitude, working upwards of 18 hours a day.