The Indigenous “Slaves” of Nepal face another crisis

Kamaiyas-bonded laborers of Nepal-are in imminent danger of losing the land recently given to them by the government of Nepal. The government has set aside 400 bighas (160 acres) of forest for the freed Kamaiyas in the Baidiphant and Kalo Bel areas, but the local Village Development Committee (VDC) has opposed this decision claiming that the forest belongs to the Royal Bardiya National Park. It therefore should not be used for the Kamaiya land distribution. The government has already begun logging activities in the forest area to facilitate the process of land distribution. VDC filed a petition in the Supreme Court arguing that the government’s methods of helping Kamaiya are destructive to the environment and that other areas adjoining the forest are much more suitable for the Kamaiya settlement. The Kamaiya have no voice in this process.

There are different kinds of bonded laborers in Nepal, Kamaiya being the most exploited. The vast majority of Kamaiya in Nepal belong to the Tharu indigenous group. The power of landlords over the bonded laborers comes from their never-ending debt. A yearly contract is signed between the landlord and the laborer: The landlord agrees to give a certain amount of rice in return for this work, but the amount of pay that is given to the Kamaiyas is seldom enough to feed the family, let alone cover debts and pay for other necessities. However, laborers have no choice for they do not possess any land of their own and moreover, are most likely, already in debt. Thus, they are forced to turn to the landlord for help. The loan grows and carries over to the children, who become enslaved from birth.

Kamaiyas, although freed from bonded labor since July 2000, have not been able to find a place of their own in the kingdom of Nepal. After emancipation, many bonded laborers have continued working for their landlords. Others left or were evicted by the landlords. Currently, many of them live as refugees on other peoples’ lands. Kamaiya are caught in the past, but continue their struggle to build a new future and a new identity, one that is free of oppression and discrimination.