During the Maoist insurgency, Laligurans community forest users’ group (CFUG) in the Dodhara VDC of the Kailali district, saw an opportunity to support a local school with much needed funds. The school, the Jagadambike Bagawati Secondary School, was a government school, but had been struggling financially. It carried a particularly heavy burden as it had to provide free schooling to a sizeable number of children from poor homes. The school, reputedly, had the highest turn-out of Dalit scholars in the country. The opportunity to help the school arose because a part of the area under control of the CFUG was shrubland. The CFUG decided to clear this land for use by the school. It was illegal, but it was a time of lawlessness. Furthermore, they assumed that no-one would complain as the objective was not improper personal gain, but the interest of the whole community. However, their plan was unfulfilled. Circa 2005/2006 (2062/2063 B.S.), a group of 45 Freed Kamaiya families in search of a place to settle came across this piece of land and settled there. The Freed Kamaiyas, of course, had their own reasons for their action. The Kamaiyas were bonded labourers that lived and worked on the land under conditions that many described as approximating slavery. They were trapped in an unbreakable cycle of indebtedness to landlords that forced them to offer their labour for very low wages. The practice was particularly widespread in the Kailali and Bardiya districts of Nepal’s Far Western Region. Most Kamaiyas were Tharus, an ethnic group that was indigenous to this area.
In July 2000, the Cabinet decided to declare the Kamaiya practice illegal. The protest movement that informed this decision started in Kailali. In May 2000, nineteen Kamaiya families working for a prominent politician decided that they had enough. They tried to lay charges against their “owner”, a prominent politician, for not paying the minimum wages as required by law. They also charged him with disrespect for the Constitution of 1990. When no local government office was willing to handle these charges, they took to the streets. Their protest soon spread across the district and to neighbouring districts, leading to the Cabinet decision in July. This decision was followed by the Kamaiya Labour (Prohibition) Act of 2002, which effectively “freed” the Kamaiyas. Their hard-won freedom, however, was for many Kamaiyas a bitter-sweet experience as they now literally found themselves unemployed and homeless. While celebrating with much joy, they faced an uncertain future with little hope of escaping from the trap of poverty. The government promised rehabilitation and distribution of land to Kamaiya families, but little happened. Cabinet, furthermore, decided that if Kamaiyas were to find available land to settle on, they could settle there and the government will formalise their claims. Therefore, Kamaiyas started occupying land in the Kailali and Bardiya districts, a trend that became an everyday experience especially since 2005. Eventually, the government began to act by registering families in need of land. Families were registered according to their needs and location, qualifying for plots of land ranging from a maximum of 5 katsas (1 kattha = 338.6 square meters), and the minimum 1 kattha. The families were graded as A, B, C, D, and accordingly they would be entitled to the land.
The settlement of the forty-five Freed Kamaiya families on the piece of cleared forest in Dodhara VDC should be seen against this background. It was a time of deep tensions in the larger community. Many land-owners deeply resented these new developments and similarly embarked on protest action. In Dodhara VDC, it did not take long for tensions to develop between the Freed Kamaiyas on one side, and the CFUG and school on the other side. There were concerted attempts to drive the Freed Kamaiyas away, with some of their dwellings burnt down. The Freed Kamaiyas responded by seeking legal protection, lobbying the human rights community, and holding a torch rally in the district with support from other Kamaiyas.
With tensions escalating, the District Land Resettlement Committee, a government body that had responsibility for the resettling of Freed Kamaiyas, did a survey at the location of the settlement. They reached a verbal agreement with the conflict parties that the school would use 5 bighas of the cleared area (1 bigha = 6,772.63 square meters). The Kamaiyas would use the remaining 7 – 8 bighas. This agreement was reached in the presence of the District Police Office, who were called in to defuse a potentially violent situation, and all the concerned parties. However, during these negotiations the CFUG and the school kept quiet because they knew that their action to clear the land was illegal.
In 2008, thirty-seven of the Freed Kamaiya families received title deeds. The remaining 8 families, however, continued to stay on even though it was illegal, but with the government taking no action against them. These 8 families, however, settled on the land allocated to the school. Again, the school kept quiet because the agreement to divide the land was not written down and had no legal status, and they still felt they could not pursue the issue because of their earlier illegal action. Furthermore, each of the 45 families settled on 5 bigas irrespective of their government grading. The school ended up with smaller size of land than that was promised in the verbal agreement. The resentment of the school community against the Kamaiyas increased with their financial troubles. They had to find other financial resources and considered selling the remaining land allocated to them. This idea, however, was resisted by the Kamaiyas. They wanted a school for Kamaiyas built on that land due to, in their perception, the frosty treatment of their children at the other school. They also thought that the land was rightfully theirs since the government’s Freed Kamaiya resettlement plan also included establishing schools for their children.
Overall, the conflict resulted in a highly unproductive and tense stalemate. The agreement that was reached solved little. It not only lacked legal status, but more importantly, it was illegal as the Land Resettlement Committee did not have the authority to give land to anyone but to Freed Kamaiyas. Their allocation of land to the school was therefore illegal. Furthermore, the agreement did little to heal relationships. In fact, relations worsened. The Freed Kamaiyas sent their children to the school, but did not attend any school meetings. The Freed Kamaiyas still feared eviction and continued maltreatment; while the school community felt helpless against this “invasion” because they had no legal basis to their claims.
The National Resource Person (NRP) of Kailali, Ballu Chaudhary, was a well-known person in the Freed Kamaiya community. In fact, he, as well as the two other NRCTC-N facilitators, were themselves Freed Kamaiyas. As a youth leader, he was very active in the Kamaiya movement in Kailali, and he was involved in helping the Kamaiya’s to settle on the disputed piece of land. He was now approached by the Freed Kamaiya settlers, in his new capacity as a facilitator, to help them in their conflict with the school. However, the school principal viewed NRCTC-N and Ballu with much suspicion because they were known to be Freed Kamaiyas and therefore assumed to be prejudiced. For six months NRCTC-N tried to engage the principal, but with no success.
The breakthrough came in two roundabout ways. NRCTC-N conducted a district workshop in 2013 to introduce their programme and approach. Heads of local government departments, including the CDO, attended, as well as other prominent personalities in the district. The principal was also invited. The presence of these local dignitaries at the workshop made the principal reconsider his perception. Furthermore, the NRP of the neighbouring district and the principal had the same home district and they were therefore known to each other. He also spoke to the principal to convince him of the integrity and impartiality of NRCTC-N’s approach. A few days later the principal called Ballu for a meeting.
A spider-group was established soon after with 10 members representing the school, the CFUG and the Freed Kamaiyas. The coordinator of the spider-group was a Tharu and a teacher at the school. He enjoyed the trust of both groups. In December 2015, an agreement was reached. The essence of the agreement was that both the school and the Freed Kamaiyas’ claims on the land would be legalised. The school could henceforth legally use their portion of the land and build infrastructure on it, but could not sell it. The Freed Kamaiyas could enjoy undisputed ownership of their title deeds. The 8 families not registered would complete their registration. The Kamaiya children would receive free education at the school. They must pay, however, for extra-curricular activities and examination fees. Both the school and the CFUG would prioritise Kamaiya participation in their activities. Lastly, in case of future disagreements, they would resort to dialogue. The agreement was signed by all parties in the presence of the Member of Parliament. In terms of the Mediation Act of 2011, the agreement has legal status as it was endorsed by all parties and signed in the presence of an official. The points of agreement are as follows:
- From this agreement between Freed Kamaiya and Shree Jagadambike Bhagwati Secondary School, the school will be allowed to use the land completely.
- Shree Jagadambike Bhagwati Secondary School can use the land for playground or construct building for secondary or +2 level.
- Shree Jagadambike Bhagwati Secondary School will not be allowed to sell the given land or use it for any other purpose than mentioned above.
- Shree Jagadambike Bhagwati Secondary School will teach freely to the children of Freed Kamaiya from grade 1 to 10 but the School can charge them for exam fee, sports fee, identity card fee, tie and belt fee and Red Cross fee.
- First priority will be given to a representative from Freed Kamaiya in the School Management Committee of Shree Jagadambike Bhagwati Secondary School.
- If any kind of disagreements arose in future regarding this matter, such disagreements would be resolved through discussion and dialogue.
In the joint meeting which was organized to pass the agreement, a Parliament Member, Hon. Mohan Singh Rathore said, "I was aware of the conflict between Freed Kamaiyas and School in Kailali district, and I am glad that the land use conflict between Jagadambike Bhagwati Secondary School and Freed Kamaiyas of Khaireni has been transformed in the facilitation of NRCTC-N. This success of conflict transformation approach should not be limited to the local level; it should be used to transform more complex conflicts in our country. I am glad that I was invited to witness this happy occasion, although I was aware of this conflict, I was unable to do anything to resolve it, and now that this conflict has been transformed, I feel more responsible for supporting so I declare to allocate NRs. 2 lakhs from the Parliament Development Fund for the development of this school. There are many such conflicts in this area; I urge this organization to work on as many conflicts as they can to open the door of development."
Likewise, Spider Team Member, Mr Dil Raj Gautam, recalls his feelings as "I became linked with this conflict as a teacher of Shree Jagadambike Bhagwati Secondary School, but I am a lawyer by profession. When I became a spider team member, at first, I used to think that these Freed Kamaiyas do not stand a chance to gain anything out of this conflict transformation process. Instead, they should have gone to court; in fact, they should have called me to handle their case, I would have had a chance to earn a little. But as I started working as a spider team member, my perspectives have changed and now that this conflict has reached this point of agreement, I am convinced that there could not have been any other way to transform this conflict. I would have earned from court case, but the court could not have resolved this conflict permanently, a decision of court makes one party winner and the other loser, it actually fuels enmity between conflicting parties but in this conflict transformation process, the facilitators help conflicting parties to express their hidden desires and fears openly, the decision on the conflict is made through dialogues in a fair, participatory and inclusive way with win-win situation. The relationship between conflicting parties is improved making way for an agreement. By being a part of this process, I have learnt that winning a court case would give me wealth and momentary satisfaction, but it wouldn’t give give me this much of deeper satisfaction, respect and affection from people.
Tulsiram Chaudhary leader of freed Kamaiyas said, in the past, the School Management turned a deaf ear towards us and did whatever they liked. They called us adversaries of development; they protested against us while we did not have the courage to express our views. But now they behave well with us, they come to our camps, they talk to us and also listen to us, and we can also talk to them openly without any fear. This is a great achievement for us.
The principal of Jagadambike Secondary School, Mr Netra Prasad Khadka recounts "in the past, we used to think that these Freed Kamaiyas are against development, they don't understand anything, and it's a big mistake of the political parties to settle them in here. But now that we have visited their homes, listened to their troubles and concerns, we have realized that Freed Kamaiyas are not against development, in fact, they are struggling to develop this area. They are concerned about conserving the public properties, and they do not have any hostile feelings towards us. If NRCTC-N has not brought this conflict transformation program in this area, then we would not have understood the concerns of the Freed Kamaiyas, we would still be in conflict with each other and this area would not have received a generous donation of NRs. 2 lakhs from Constituent Assembly member Mr. Mohan Singh Rathore. Hence this conflict transformation process has brought all of us together making way for a better future; I am thankful to this organization for bringing this process at our doorsteps.
The agreement has been implemented successfully. More striking though is the impact that the process had on the relationships of the different groups, as well as the well-being of the Freed Kamaiyas. They are very happy as they are relieved of the stress to find a legal and safe place to stay. Their relationship with the school has changed dramatically. They have been offered a seat on the school committee. However, because of the pressure on them to find and keep employment, they were not able to take this up. Their seat is vacant currently but is kept open until someone will have the spare time to serve in this capacity.
The school is relieved that their ownership of the land has now been legalized and that they may use the portion allocated to them. It is also a relief that the stress of the conflict has lifted. The principal made it clear that he would see to the implementation of the agreement and, when he retires, will ensure that his successor will understand its importance. At a personal level, he said that the experience had transformed his understanding of how the conflict should be resolved. In the past, he just gave instructions. Now he listens better and discusses options. The school received an additional benefit when the Member of Parliament donated a substantial amount from the Parliamentary Fund to the school. He did this in appreciation of the way in which a conflict that was bad for all was settled. The school used some of this money to install windows and contracted Freed Kamaiyas to do the job. The CFUG is similarly relieved because of this happy ending and has started to contract Freed Kamaiya labourers for specific tasks.
Local political leaders told the researchers that this process helped them to realise that, in dealing with such complex issues, they should see the bigger picture rather than simply siding with their voters. They also stated that the underlying culture of dealing with conflict has shifted. It is better to talk things through than to simply run to the police or litigate. The single issue of concern is the enduring economic plight of the Freed Kamayas. NRCTC-N is monitoring this situation. Ideally a network of organisations that have the capacity to assist in this matter should be established. The question is whether this is NRCTC-N’s mandate?
This local conflict in one small community in Kailali was a manifestation or a symptom of a deeper illness in the larger society. For the actors involved, though, it was their conflict, disrupting and distressing their lives. The roots of the conflict were hidden deep in the cultural, socio-economic and political soil of the country. It was, in other words, caused not in the first place by the behaviour of the people involved in this case as by larger historical, political and socio-economic forces. But while a symptom may point to deeper causes and problems, the symptom itself, for the person experiencing an illness, is a cause of great distress. Put differently, while the Kamaiya practice and its transformation was an issue that concerned all of Nepal, for the actors, in this case, it was their own conflict that had a debilitating impact on their lives.
The case, therefore, demonstrates the interaction between national and local conflicts – how national conditions and policies cause local actors to confront each other. But it also demonstrates how local actors have, under certain conditions, the agency to transform such a conflict.