An article by Indira Shankar published by the Asian human Rights Commission
On August 18, 2008, more than 35,000 villagers were displaced by a massive flood of the Koshi River in Nepal. The damage has been tremendous, and has led to increasing hunger and poverty. At the time of breaching about 168,000 Cusec diverted into west Kusaha, Lakahi, Ghuski, Shreepur, Hazipur, Haripur, Madhuban and Basantapur Village Development Communities (VDCs) of the Sundari district. Approximately 107,200 villagers from these eight VDCs were affected — four VDCs were completely devastated, and the other four severely damaged. In addition, the flood severely damaged farmland and public property, and caused roughly 5.5 billion Nepalese Rupees of damage. Many of the affected villagers were rescued over the course of three days. Shelters and food for the displaced were arranged in schools and hospitals. Those who lived on the banks of the river, and were most affected by the floods, are mostly Dalit.
NGOs such as Save the Children, Red Cross, and Chambers of Commerce were involved in emergency relief, and the District Natural Calamity Rescue Committee provided some food and other resources through the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. The Nepalese Army sent six helicopters for the rescue. The District Natural Disaster Relief Committee mobilized its staff to arrange shelter and food in the six affected VDCs.
Deep-rooted caste discrimination affects disaster relief efforts, and Dalits suffer as a result
Caste discrimination is legally prohibited1 in Nepal but continues to be widely practiced. The Dalit community has always been treated as a servant class. Dalits remain vulnerable, as they are still denied access to and control over resources. Most Dalits living in Nepal’s plains have been landless for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, as they are assigned menial jobs for daily wages. Many were compelled to settle along the banks of the Koshi River for lack of any other available place to live. After the Koshi flood, they become much more vulnerable.
In December 2010, the Nepalese government was in the final stage of completing 1.62 billion Nepalese Rupees of relief and rehabilitation programmes for the Koshi victims. The government doled out money to assist individuals to return home and rebuild their flood-ravaged houses, and also provided some funding for the landless. The government purchased land at ward 3 of Haripur village to allocate 133.8 square meters of land to each of 1,422 landless families.
The Chamar community (a Dalit sub-caste), however, has still not received any land, despite the fact that the Chamars were most severely affected by the flood. The Chief District Officer’s High Level Task Force team, created to assist with flood-related matters, includes representatives of a local volunteer body of villagers (the Koshi Struggle Committee) with not a single representative from the Chamar community.
The purpose of the Koshi Flood Victims Struggle Committee (“Committee”) is to facilitate the delivery of government compensation to affected villagers. The Chamar community, excluded from participating in the Committee, alleges that those associated with the Committee are not acting transparently, and are not concerned about the flood’s Chamar victims. More than 80 landless Chamar households residing in ward 4, west Kusaha VDC, and Koshi zone, have suffered from the flood’s detrimental effects to their livelihood and environment. Before the flood, landless Chamars fished in the river, and worked as a daily agricultural labourers dependant on dominant caste landlords. In that role, the Chamars engaged in share-cropping and grazing of livestock. Now, however, the agricultural land on which the Chamars depended has been destroyed, and fish are no longer available in the river after the flood. As a result, the Chamars have lost all available sources of livelihood, and they are unable to find the money to escape homelessness. The government has not sufficiently taken into account the fact that the Chamars’ livelihoods were destroyed by the flood.
Nepal’s Natural Disaster Relief Act of 1982 was intended to aid victims of natural disasters. The Act requires that relief work be carried out in the area affected or likely to be affected by the natural disaster in order to aid the victims and rehabilitate them. The law has not been effectively applied, however, to ensure the relief of impoverished Dalits.
Mrs. Tara Devi Sardar, a Chamar representative of the flood victims, said, “From birth, we are landless. The flood destroyed all our houses. Society made us live along the banks of the river. We eat one day and the next day we go hungry.”
Mustak Ansari, president of Saptakoshi Network as well as in charge of the West Kusaha VDC, stated that no safe drinking water was available for 80 households in the area, and after two years only the UNDP provided pipes and hand pumps for the villagers. As of this writing, land has still not been allotted to the landless households.
Chamar women are more especially vulnerable to social insecurity and food insecurity. They look after their children and the elderly while their husbands and elder sons migrate to other countries seeking jobs. As Chamar families have lost even limited income sources, younger boys also have to migrate to India or Punjab, dropping out of school. Because many families are now homeless, night time is especially stressful, as wild animals often enter the camps.
Caste-based discrimination against the Chamar in Nepal
The Chamar are traditionally forced to dispose of the dead carcasses of domestic animals. They also produce various handcrafts such as shoes, sandals and bags from the hides of the animals. In Terai, the Marwaris, Chaudharis, Yadav, Dev and Shah castes are rich and politically powerful. In mountainous areas of Nepal, a variety of religions and cultures co-exist, including Hindu castes and indigenous communities, and there is less caste discrimination. Dalits living in Terai, however, face a different reality. They are frequently beaten the most trivial violations of the traditional caste barriers they routinely face. They do not have access to public places such as water taps, temples, and certain public roads.
Though housing has not yet been developed as a separate and explicit right, lack of housing is a major issue for Dalits. Due to unequal land possession, lack of implementation of land redistribution policies, and caste based discrimination, more than 200,000 are landless, most of whom are Dalit and bonded labourers such as the Kamaiyas.
1 The Interim Constitution of 2007 bans untouchability and ensures social equality and protection from discrimination based on occupation, caste and ethnic groups. The reinstated House of Representatives (HOR) declared Nepal a secular and untouchability-free state on May 18, 2006. The Caste Based Discrimination and Untouchability Crime Elimination and Punishment Act was drafted in 2009 but has yet been passed.
The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.
About the author:
Ms. Indra Shankar interned at the AHRC. She works in FIAN-Nepal based in Kathmandu.