Freed slaves of Western Nepal still await rehabilitation

Surendra Kafle

Surendra Kafle

Freed slaves of Western Nepal still await rehabilitation

On 17 July 2000, the government announced the abolition of slavery, freeing the former Kamaiyas and Kamlaris. But the rehabilitation of former bonded laborers remains incomplete 21 years hence

When the Kamaiya system, traditional slavery, was in practice in Western Nepal, Kamaiyas and Kamlaris—male and female bonded labors respectively—used to get a day off from work only on Maghi, a mid-winter festival celebrated on the first day of the month of Magh of Hindu calendar. It was during the festival that the indentured laborers were exchanged.

On 17 July 2000, the government announced the abolition of slavery in five districts, freeing the former Kamaiyas and Kamlaris. However, the rehabilitation of the former bonded laborers remains incomplete 21 years hence.

“The rehabilitation is unfinished as the announcement was made in haste,” says Shanta Chaudary, a former bonded laborer who is now in the House of Representatives. She says the task will remain incomplete so long as their problems related to poverty and land are not resolved. The remaining tasks of rehabilitation, which now have been entrusted to the local level, seems to have been put on the back burner. The freed Kamaiyas and Kamlaris are demanding the federal government take up the onus.

Chairman of Freed Kamaiya Society (Mukta Kamaiya Society) Pashupati Chaudhary blames the handover of the responsibility to the local government without authority for the failure in reintegration. “The federal government passed on this task to the local government in 2018. But the budget for rehabilitation was released much later,” he says. “Then, the land revenue and land reform offices, which were overseeing rehabilitation, refused to provide data, leading to the freezing of the budget.” 

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The Kamaiyas had to work for landlords without pay. Young folks from poor families were forced to become bonded laborers to a lender when their families failed to repay their loans on time. After becoming bonded, they would get clothes and food for their survival. People from Thaur ethnic groups used to become Kamaiya. This bonded servitude system is against the universal declaration of human rights, among other international conventions and treaties, to which Nepal is a party. It has also been banned by Nepal’s constitution. But the free Kamaiyas are still living a life of struggle on riverbanks, landless squatters’ settlements, and nearby forests.

The system was in practice in Kanchanpur, Kailali, Bardiya, Banke and Dang districts. According to government estimates, around 27,570 families of free Kamaiyas need to be rehabilitated.

The Kamaiya Labor (Prohibition) Act (2002) and related Regulations were enacted in 2011. A commission was formed on 1 January 2009 to resolve the rehabilitation of freed Kamaiyas. The freed Kamaiyas were classified into four categories and issued ID cards as a part of the rehabilitation plan. But this process is yet to be completed.

Similarly, the unmarried women of Tharu ethnic group, especially the daughters of Kamaiya family, in western Tarai, were compelled to become Kamlaris. To end this system of lifelong servitude of women, Kamlari Struggle Committee staged a protest demanding elimination of the abominable practice. The government and the struggle reached a 10-point agreement on 28 May 2013. Then on June 27 the same year, the government announced the abolition of Kamalari practice. The Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare had then presented the details of 9,490 freed Kamlaris. The government later distributed 11,000 identity cards to the freed Kamlaries.

The Ministry of Land Reforms has now constituted a five-member study team. The committee has been tasked with furnishing details of the progress in rehabilitation, the issues addressed so far, and number and condition of rehabilitated families.