Through my volunteer work at CSRC I was recently able to interview a number of Haruwa/Charuwa (mostly Dalits), who were in Kathmandu to advocate for their rights with policy makers. The group included four men and five women, primarily with the last name of Ram or Sada from VDC’s in Saptari and Siraha Districts. The majority of the group were illiterate due to lack of educational opportunities, circumstances related to discrimination, land-poor and lack of funds.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention Nos.29, 105 and 182 prohibits forced and bonded labour including child-bonded labour. The Government of Nepal has ratified ILO Convention Nos. 29 and 182 and has passed its own legislation. However,a substantial numberof rural individuals and families are still compelled to works as semi-bonded labourers. Lack of capabilities and access to alternative sources of livelihood, children deprived of a school education due to having to take over their family’s generational debt, debt bondage at exorbitant interest rates, allowing no possibility for payback and lack of citizenship papers are just some of the issues which perpetuate poverty and the practice of a bonded agricultural labour system. Most of the Haruwas have no land and have settled on a landlord’s land, which is another reason as to why they have remained as bonded.
The Government of Nepal formally abolished the Kamaiya Labour System on 17 July 2000 and had enacted the Kamaiya Labour (Prohibition) Act 2001 to prevent and rehabilitate bonded labourers under the Kamaiya system in agriculture. This Act includes agricultural labour systems, e.g. Haliya, Haruwa, Hali, Charuwa, etc. under “Kamaiya Labour”. Haliya/Haruwa and Charuwa are very poor people who are Dalits. They are the most marginalised people with the majority being landless, traditionally considered as “untouchables”. Often entire families are bound to work as unpaid labourers to a landlord as the father is engaged as a Haliya/Haruwa.
Today there are approximately 69,000 Haruwa/Charuwa families in the eastern region of Nepal.
The number of Haruwa/Charuwas has been gradually reduced but there are still families working to pay off debt. Most of the Haruwa/Charuwas (approximately 90%) are forced to pay 60% interest to local landlords or money lenders for their survival needs. Wage payments are mainly in-kind (rice) and the cash value is only 50-60 percent of the minimum wage declared by the government. Endemic poverty, wage exploitation, and access to land, health and quality education continue to be major problems.
Siran Sada, 55, Badagama VDC, Saptari told me that his grandfather became a Haruwa, by taking a loan and that his family is still working on paying off this debt, although he didn’t know how much remained. In light of the fact that the landlord was charging exorbitant interest rates there is probably little personal hope of ever getting out of poverty. Siran has a home on public land on a river bank. He has had opportunity for daily wage jobs, which hardly pays more than 5-6 kg of rice/day, but that the landlord is pressuring to work their land. Siran was given four kathaland, which is insufficient to grow food for the full year. He has also taken a loan from his landlord. Siran has had few options for educating his children and the life of a Haruwa has now been passed down to a fourth generation, through his son. Siran’s family is one of the fortunate few among the group in that his son brought home a mobile phone from India.
Latar Sada, Sishawani, 63 VDC, Siraha discussed how educating the young might be able to eliminate the Haruwa system, but he also said that he has insufficient resources to send his children to school and that he doesn’t have enough food for his family. He indicated that children have to leave school early due to discrimination, e.g. non-dalits were provided with new books, while Dalits were given old books, or the fact that Dalits had to sit in the back of the classroom. But it is also a question of having the money for exam fees and stationary items and although schools are advertised as free, in fact, there are costs.
Sonawati Sada, 34, Hanuman Nagr, Siraha had borrowed NPR 4,000 from her landlord, but has had to borrow more than NPR 40,000 from six money lenders who charge 60% interest rates for medical treatment for her and other family members. If the family doesn’t pay anything they will get evicted but some of the male family members have gone to India for temporary work in order to pay something towards the loan. Sonawati has three daughters, with the oldest, 12, taking care of the family home meaning that she is no longer in school and will have little livelihood opportunity.
Rajaya Debi Sada, 44, Madhupati VDC, Saptari,lives on village government land in a family of nine members. Rajaya was married at 17, neither she or her husband attended school, her father was a Haruwa and she married a Haruwa. Rajaya has four grandchildren, her son was 18 when he was married and his wife was 16.
In total all felt that being a Haruwa/Charuwa was not fate, that it was man-made. When I asked the group how to resolve the issue some talked about the government exempting the loan and providing social security for medical purposes. Gulab Debi Ram, 45, Haripur Saptari told me that the government should providing land for housing about one katha plus additional land based on family size in order to grow 12 months of food.
How does the question of elimination of Haruwa/Charuwa truly get addressed, in order to provide opportunities and get people out of poverty and into the mainstream? How do we ensure that children are not born into a life without much hope, only because they were born to someone with the surname of Sada? Why can’t land be distributed, based on generations of tilling and also paying a fair wage for a fair day’s work? Why is it that some must remain impoverished and not share in what we all hope and dream for?
Although Haruwa/Charuwa has been organised by CSRC and the National Land Rights Forum (NLRF) which has included demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins, submission of demand letters, and meetings, a number of times with high government officials, there has been no proper response.
At some point in the distant future the vision of CSRC, A Nepali society where everyone enjoys a secure, free and dignified life, might become reality, but until that time we need, even in small ways to give hope to people like Rajaya, Siran, Latar, Sonawati and Gulab and their families. It is up to all of us, government, civil society and corporates to work collaboratively in making a bright future for all Nepalis.