“Our grandparents and parents were land tillers for their masters throughout their lives. And, it is likely that we will meet the end of life doing nothing else than searching for a square of meal in the entire course of our lives,’’ said Juna Damai of Thalara Rural Municipality-8, Bajhang in a depressing tone.
Juna who represents 25 families of a tiny impoverished Dalit (former land tillers) settlement at Thalara Rural Municipality struggling to meet their daily needs wants an immediate end of the paucity and poverty. The situation has further worsened with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are out of work; their source of income has stopped- no food to eat.
It may surprise you to hear that 22 are families including Juna’s residing under a single roof in the settlement. She is among those 107 members sharing the same dilapidated house with a slate roof for years at Thalara-8 that lies at a distance of 30 minutes walk from the rural municipality’s center.
The house with six main doors seems to accommodate up to five or six families. The story of Juna evidently paints the grim picture of this settlement of ex-Haliyas. “This is the place which we can call 'own'. We have nothing to own except this house and land where it is built on,’’ said Juna. They are totally dependent on others for their livelihood.
Padam Nepali, one of the community members, said they were working on daily wages before the measures taken to stem the spread of the second wave of coronavirus. These days have turned tougher for the people like him as they are finding no alternatives to meet their survival needs. He fears that community people will be killed by hunger, not the disease. Their source of income stopped with the enforcement of prohibitory orders against the COVID-19 pandemic. “It seems the hunger is killing us first than the disease,’’ he said.
Gyanu Damai, 55, has a family of 12. Before the COVID-19 crisis, she used to visit families of so-called upper castes as domestic help. “Now, I have no paid work and no food to eat,’’ she opened her heart out, hoping to get relief assistance from anywhere else until the crisis goes on.
“We will get back to work once the time returns to normalcy,’’ she said. On 6th September 2008, the government announced the abolishment of the Haliya tradition (a form of bonded labour involving landlords and tillers). With the declaration to end the Haliya system, landlords demanded their tillers clear off a debt they owed to them (masters) and forced them out of their works (land tilling). The former land tillers are unable to pay the debt to their maters to date and are still being scolded for this.
All the Haliya families in Bisakhet have been starving without income sources. They do not have any plot of land in their name except the house they currently live in.
The Damai community has been demanding a guarantee of their rights to live safely and relocation of their settlements at risk. An organisation named Fiyan Nepal has been providing assistance to the Dalit settlement. “We paid off loans that remained unpaid for generations with the financial assistance of the organisation. However, our other problems have remained unresolved. We have not possessed a single plot of land in our name,” said Balu Damai.
The families have depended on daily wages for survival. However, they have been hit hard by the prohibitory order over COVID-19 to survive without income sources, he said.
The district land revenue office has verified Haliya in the district. According to the freed Haliya rehabilitation structure and action plan, 2070, the freed Haliya people without a house and lands have been categorised into Group ‘A’, the one possessing only a house into Group ‘B’, the one possessing only lands into Group ‘C’ and the one having both a house and lands into Group ‘D’.
In case of the Haliyas at Bisakhet, they by a mistake have been categorised into Group ‘D’, thus depriving them of facilities given by the government.
According to data with the district land revenue office, over Rs 104 million has been distributed for the construction and repair of houses and for purchasing lands for 88 freed Haliyas. However, the Haliya community at Bisakhet has complained that they have not received any succour from the government so far.