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FOCUS September 2000 Volume 21

A Fight against Kamaiya System: an Experience Review

Mukunda Raj Kattel

An overview

The kamaiya system arises from debt relationship. It sustains bonded practices as a matter of accepted social phenomenon. It works as simple as this: a debt recipient, a poor and illiterate folk, comes into bondage to the lender, a local landlord, after failing to pay the loan in cash at a stipulated time. The debtor is then required to offer labor in repayment. But the value of labor is so minimal, almost zero in many cases, that a complete repayment of the loan is hardly possible. The debtor over time comes under the complete control of the master; he marries in bondage and dies in bondage. His wife and children inherit the loan and bequeath it to succeeding generations. This is the dynamics of the kamaiya system, a remnant as well as a new form of slavery. The bonded person is called kamaiya.

The system was first noticed by anthropologists in the 1960s. However, it got public attention as a system promoting enslavement only at the outset of 1990s. Buoyed with the success of the democratic movement in the country in early 1990s, a fledgling organization-INSEC-resolved to lead a fight against the system and sponsored a path breaking study. Its 1992 report divulged the plight of kamaiyas to a wide array of audiences, national and international, and mounted solidarity of concerns. INSEC soon initiated a kamaiya literacy and awareness program to educate the kamaiyas about their situation and the causes of the kamaiya system. It was thought that the kamaiyas would subsequently challenge the system and free themselves from bondage as a result of the program. Many other organizations begun to take up the issue afterward.

Eight years later, the kamaiyas tore apart the chain of bondage. They are now legally free from enslavement and have become sovereign citizens, a decade after the 1990 Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal prohibiting "traffic in human beings, slavery, serfdom or forced labour in any form" (Article 20) took effect.

A bane of many, a boon for a few

The kamaiya system continued during the whole decade of the 1990s despite the democratic form of government and the 1990 Constitution that prohibits slavery because of a number of factors.

The word kamaiya means a hard working person who earns much through manual labor. The ruling class, including opinion makers, profit immensely from the system. It is a source of their power over society; the principal reason why uprooting this entrenched system was difficult despite legal provisions prohibiting bonded practices such as that the system sustained.

Existing laws and obligations prohibiting bondage in Nepal
  • Article 20 of the Constitution prohibits bondage and serfdom in any form.

  • The Civil Code under Traffic in Human Beings (No.3) makes enslavement a punishable act ranging from 5-7 years of imprisonment.
  • Bonded labour is explicitly prohibited by the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices similar to Slavery. Nepal is a State Party to this Convention.

Another factor, the most gruesome of all, is that most people occupying policy making positions in all Nepali political parties have been identified as masters of a number of kamaiyas. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), now the main Opposition party, hinted at this fact when he made party directives (a commendable decision) in early January 2000 to expel members from any position in the party if they are found holding kamaiyas. The directive, although much acclaimed, worked rather slowly, if not completely failed. Meanwhile, the Nepali Congress Party, mostly in power following the advent of democracy, openly protected those who maintained kamaiyas.

The present Land Reform and Management Minister, a democratic leader, is a master of kamaiyas. He stated that, "I also had kamaiyas as kamaiya keeping was a system. However, I had taken a good care of them." As head of a government ministry, an influential Nepali Congress leader, and a veteran proponent of democracy, he does not feel any guilt over this admission. People with similar position as his could alter the situation of the kamaiyas overnight if they did their job and relinquished their control over kamaiyas.

In the context of the kamaiya system, the 'freedom' most political leaders and ministers spoke about throughout the decade of the 1990s referred to their own freedom, the freedom to keep slaves, unfortunately.

On the average, a kamaiya works about 13 hours a day. He gets only around 11 rupees at the maximum. Using the legal minimum wage of 60 rupees (US$ 0.80) for eight-hour work per day, he should be getting 102 rupees for the 13-hour work. Instead, he loses around 90 rupees a day to his master. Annually, a master makes a surplus of 32,500 rupees (US$ 450) per kamaiya. This amount is multiplied several times more based on the number of the members of the kamaiya family engaged in the work.

Various studies, three studies by INSEC alone, in the 1990s estimate that between 70,000 and 100,000 kamaiyas are being exploited under this system. And the system primarily affects the indigenous Tharu people in western Nepal.

The road to liberation

The liberation of kamaiyas shows that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can effect social change. Their honest and united work had a crucial bearing on kamaiya liberation. Annex 1 shows an example of an NGO initiative that helped create long-term impact on this entrenched and protected system.

A loose network of NGOs (local and international) and intergovernmental organizations working for the kamaiya liberation also helped a lot. This network called Kamaiya Concern Group (KCG) worked for three years. Government representatives from the land department occasionally participated in the network's meetings. Coordinated by INSEC as its secretariat, KCG was influential in making strong public opinion against the kamaiya system and creating high-level pressure on the government.

On May 1, 2000, in the Geta Village Development Committee of Kailali district, 19 kamaiyas revolted against their landlord, Shiba Raj Panta, an influential Nepali Congress leader. They filed a case against the landlord demanding freedom from bondage, minimum wage, compensation for unpaid labor, registration in their name of the land where they stay, and protection from the landlord.

The case was not accepted initially by the local government office. The case however gained the support of other kamaiya victims. Thousands took to the streets, shutting down major cities in the west, Mahendranagar and Dhangadhi in particular, in support of the case. They also conducted sit-in at the district administration office until the Chief District Officer finally registered the case. The movement did not end there. It was extended to the capital city, Kathmandu, miles away from Kailali. A team of kamaiyas submitted a memorandum to the Opposition leader and concerned ministers. Meetings were held with Members of Parliament, journalists and other concerned people. Finally, a series of demonstrations of kamaiyas held in Kathmandu city, and sit-ins organized in front of the Prime Ministers' office forced the government to announce a decision on 17 July 2000 declaring the system illegal and the practice henceforth punishable. The Cabinet Decision presented to the parliament provides the following points:

  • the engagement of kamaiya labor is illegal,
  • the kamaiyas are emancipated outright,
  • any written or verbal contract made between the landlord and the kamaiya or a family member is null and void and its enforcement punishable by law, and
  • the debt (saunki, in local term) under the kamaiya system is illegal and therefore should not be paid back.

It was a matter of pleasure for all, more so for INSEC, which pioneered the work in this sector that led up to the liberation movement.

Post freedom scenario

Gaining freedom for the kamaiyas did not mean much, however. They still suffer from the pains accumulated during the several generations of living under the system.

The state has not yet been able to rehabilitate them and supply them with basic subsistence needs. The civil society is yet to enter into the domain of its new role. A sense of confusion is thus in place.

Kamaiyas have either left or have been forced by their masters to leave their hamlets constructed in the land of the masters. They do not have any belongings, including utensils, quilts and bedding. Very basic of all, they do not have sufficient food to eat. Mr. Gopilal Chaudhari, freed at the age of 78 along with his family members, is completely dependent upon Backward Society Education, a Dang-based NGO, for food. Mr. Chaudhari says, "sometimes food is available, sometimes I go to bed hungry."

Similarly, Mrs. Phul Kumari Chaudhari, a mother of four, has an additional load to shoulder when her husband fell ill. She has an only a pot to cook food, this too is not sufficient for the whole family. She laments, "We do not have basic things in our shelter, how long can we go on this way?" She is happy about the freedom but worried about the resultant situation. Sheltering in public places, kamaiyas have become refugees in their own land, hanging on to the hope that the situation would turn out better some day.

Following the declaration of freedom, His Majesty's Government sponsored various study teams to update "the kamaiya record and identif[y] ... government and public land suitable for distribution to the landless kamaiyas" and has come up with a data on 20,162 affected families. The kamaiyas are classified under the following:

  • those having neither a piece of land nor a house,
  • those having a house but not a piece of land,
  • those having a house and a piece of land less than 334.7 square meters; and
  • others.

With the data on hand, the government reportedly approached bilateral agencies and international NGOs to support the rescue and rehabilitation operation. However, the work is yet to materialize. The government also failed to introduce a law in the current session of parliament legally banning the system. This law would specifically address the kamaiyas, unlike the vague provisions existing in other laws dealing with 'bondage', define 'bonded labour' in relation to the kamaiya system, and give a legal basis for a package programme to address this particular group of victims.

The NGOs too are seemingly caught in the dilemma, the dilemma centering on 'what's next.' At the peak of the freedom movement, as events proceeded with some immediate impact in Kathmandu, a gap between the partner organizations working jointly developed. Some unhealthy judgments were made, and decisions were taken by some individuals, without any calculation on their long-term impact, in the name of collective verdict. Some individuals with very poor exposure to the system and its dynamics also came in attempting to make it a credit-issue, that they were behind the freedom of kamaiyas, hence the success should be attributed to them. Although, the course of events did not take a detour, its hangover is still seen among the partners, which has delayed the initiation of a coordinated effort. However, this has not stopped organizations like INSEC from getting into action, and should also not stop others concerned with humanitarian and human rights issues.

The kamaiya system is a clear result of the political dynamics in Nepal, characterized as the "politics of the fittest", since it sustains the elites' hold onto power.

The crisis of the kamaiyas needs the urgent attention of all concerned individuals and institutions, you and me. Let us join hands in response to the humanity crying out for help in the lap of Sagarmatha,1 a target of many to test out their courage over the years. Another test also exists, a test of human courage to help out those victimized by the 'fittest.'

1. Sagarmatha is a Nepali word for Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world.

Annex 1

A chronology of major events that INSEC initiated in a bid to fight the kamaiya system

1991/92: Launching of pioneering survey on the situation of kamaiyas, and the publication of a report proving that debt bondage prevails in the kamaiya system in western Nepal, and the Tharu people are the victims of the system. The report exposed these facts: 93.2% of the kamaiyas belong to Tharu community; 15.5% under the age of 20; a kamaiya family has 6.34 members in average; 73% are homeless and 98.2% are landless; average kamaiya family is short of 433.3 kg food grain to feed its members annually; and 96.3% are illiterate.

1993: Initiation of kamaiya literacy and awareness programme to educate the kamaiyas about their rights

1993: A case against the system was filed in Supreme Court demanding a mandamus to enact a law banning the

1994: A proposed act abolishing the system was drafted and circulated to MPs; they were lobbied to enact it into

1994: Kamaiya Liberation Campaign was initiated kamaiyasforming organizations.

1995: A National Conference of Kamaiyas was held which created a Kamaiya Liberation Forum (KLF). In subsequent years, the KLF became instrumental to take up the kamaiyas.

1995: Kamaiya child education programme was initiated addressing out-of-school children to prepare them for formal schooling. Those above primary school age were

1996: Formation of Kamaiya Concern Group with INGOs, NGOs, IGOs and government representatives in order to kamaiyaliberation jointly.

1997: An appeal was issued to kamaiya masters on behalf of KCG urging them to release their kamaiyas. kamaiyas.

1997: Further research carried out in cooperation with London-based Anti-Slavery International (ASI) covering all kamaiya prone districts, and a report entitled Forced to Plough was published. The report exposed new facts about kamaiyas. It also identified that debt bondage prevails in other areas under other systems

1997: 'A Revisit to the Kamaiya System' was undertaken to look into the changes/effects of various programs implemented by various agencies. The Revisit exposed, among others, that kamaiya system also

1999: A minimum wage campaign for agricultural workers was launched in co-operation with Village Development Committees (VDCs), the grassroots level politico-administrative units, convincing them of the need to apply it within their jurisdiction. As the wage movement spontaneously extended to around 100 VDCs, within a period of 6 months, the government was bound to respond to the campaign by fixing a nationally applicable minimum wage for agricultural workers on 13 January 2000. In fact, it is this wage provision that facilitated the current kamaiya freedom movement. The 19 kamaiyas in Geta VDC led

2000: A high level delegation was sponsored in co-operation with ASI. Such veterans as an MP of the Lords of Commons, an expert on bonded labor in the world, a well-known Indian anti-bonded labor activist, and so on visited the Prime Minister, Opposition Leader and other high level politicians expressing their concern to ban the system. The delegation had wide media coverage, nationally as well as internationally through such agencies as BBC

The then Prime Minister promised the delegation to introduce a national legislation to define and ban bonded

2000: A quick survey is being undertaken to know the current situation of liberated kamaiyas. Based on the information gathered, a kamaiya rehabilitation movement is to start soon. The survey also aims at collecting information on current landholding of masters. It is anticipated that the information will be useful to launch a comprehensive agrarian reform movement for a long-term solution to the problems facing agricultural workers.

Mukunda Raj Kattel is the Director of Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC). For further information please use the following e-mail: