Land in Nepal is scarce. And, when it comes to fertile agricultural land, it is far scarcer. Scarcity breeds competition; and competition in turn opens up possibilities for deceit and the use of unfair means. These phenomenon pervade the history of land ownership in Nepal. Scarcity, competition and inequality characterize land distribution in the country today.
The Kamaiya system that was prevalent in the five districts of western Nepal—before being finally banned by the government on July 17, 2000—was one of the unpleasant by-products of Nepal’s checkered history of land ownership. The Tharus are indigenous to the Terai. They were the natural owners of these vast tracts of fertile land. They lived in peace and plenty before the hill settlers—pushed by population pressure in the hills—descended in their territory. The new settlers managed to gradually nibble at the land and gain the legal rights, eventually evicting the Tharus from their own land. Without land and no other alternative forms of subsistence, the Tharus were forced to work for the newly turned landed gentry, many of them as bonded labourers.
After many long hellish years of bondage the Kamaiya freedom movement emerged in the midst of the gloom and frustration pervading the ten-year anniversary of democracy. The movement was supported by a coalition of social and human rights organizations, working together with the bonded labourers themselves, the media and international aid organizations and networks. In a sustained three months of campaigning the movement managed to force the government to cancel generation-deep debts of the Kamaiya.
Even after about two years of legal freedom from bondage, for thousands of Kamaiyas real freedom still remains distant and elusive. Efforts for their rehabilitation by providing them alternative jobs in already saturated market have proven not only insufficient but also increasingly frustrating to a majority of the freed Kamaiya. Without land of their own, thousands of Kamaiya have taken refuge in various public places. Disease, hunger and frustration are taking a heavy toll. The euphoria and expectations generated by the historic Kamaiya movement evaporates with each new day.
The struggle is still far from over. The challenge for the freed Kamaiya now is claiming the social prerogatives they were denied in slavery—reasonable plots of land, voices to speak in public and schooling for their children. “Many Kamaiyas remain to be freed in Bardiya, Kailali and Banke. The next challenge is to free them. The other challenge is effective rehabilitation. This newly acquired freedom is usually only skin deep. It takes a long time for the Kamaiyas to change their mental attitude. If support for rehabilitation is not strong they will fall into the same old vicious trap of bondage again. When the Kamaiyas get land they will also need houses and training in new agricultural techniques,” says BASE president and Kamaiya movement leader Dilli Bahadur Chaudhari.
It is against this backdrop that the “Kamaiya: Slavery and Freedom in Nepal” has been written. This is the first full-color social documentary publication of its kind printed in Nepal using four color printing process, according to publisher Madhab Maharajan of Mandala Book Point. It chronicles the turbulent story of the on-going kamaiya movement in Nepal through the words of the kamaiyas themselves and a narrative sequence of documentary photographs and formal portraits made in their huts on landlord’s properties, refugee camps and on the open road, along with the stories of other protagonists such as landlord and former minister Shiva Raj Pant, and an introduction and afterword in Nepali and English.
In doing so Kamaiya: Slavery and Freedom challenges the usual postcard image of ethnic groups in Nepal and the ease with which issues involving the lives of thousands of underprivileged people so easily slip off the public agenda.
During the tumultuous days after the government abolished the kamaiya system, documentary photographer Peter Lowe came to Nepal with a large format camera and the support of MS Nepal and Backward Society Education (BASE) to document the efforts of the kamaiyas themselves to turn government promises of a better life into reality.
“We should use whatever skills and opportunities we acquire to help create a more just world. The kamaiyas should have adequate land, housing and education, which they are still struggling for almost two years after the government’s historic decision to abolish the kamaiya system. We made this book together. Whether it helps to create a more just world for the kamaiyas or not depends on you,” Peter Lowe says.
Kamaiya: Slavery and Freedom presents the story of the kamaiyas in both Nepali text edited by Vinaya Kasajoo and English. Photographs and book design are by Peter Lowe. Keshav Gautam translated interviews. Tim Whyte who worked as an MS Nepal advisor for BASE in western Nepal penned introduction and afterword. Earlier, he had studied the history of slavery in Nepal under the University of Wisconsin Nepal programme.
The book has been priced at Rs. 750 and is available at:
Mandala Book Point
P.O. Box: 528, Kantipath