Landless in Tarai

May 5, 2008 at 3:05 am Leave a comment

Landless in Tarai

– CK Lal

Land, land everywhere, but not a patch for those who till. Indeed, land ownership in most districts of Nepal’s southern Tarai districts remains highly skewed in favour of high-caste Hindus, who consider it beneath them to hold a plough or haul manure into the rice paddies. Unlike farmers of the hills, agriculturists in the Tarai habitually hire day labourers to cultivate their lands. There is a history behind this anomaly.

Almost the entire Tarai was annexed into the Shah Empire by the khukuris of the Gorkhali Army more than two centuries ago. Victorious commanders were granted landholdings in the Tarai in lieu of part of their salary by King Prithvi Narayan, the first Shah to reign and rule over the annexed territories. Since Gorkhali nobles were soldiers rather than farmers, during the mid-19th century they brought in tillers from the hills to cultivate their possessions. But unable to survive in the fly- and mosquito-infested swamps of the malarial plains, the immigrants from the hills soon fled eastwards, to the valleys of Sikkim, Assam and beyond.

During this period, Awadh and much of then-Bengal, which included present-day Bihar, were reeling under the oppression of the East India Company. Courtiers of the Gorkhali Empire induced some of the pauperised peasantry of the Ganga plains with promises of lower taxes and guaranteed tenure. Since the land did not technically belong to the agricultural contractors of the plains, they preferred to hire day labourers rather than adopt sharecropping.
The condition of the day labourers in these parts has not improved since the day their forebears left oppressive muglan (the land of Mughals) for the promised land of sarhad (the frontier). Indeed, ownership of land continues to elude the descendants of day labourers. Resettlement schemes in the Tarai have mostly served the displaced population of hills origin, rather than the local landless.

These days, in the monsoon-based agriculture of Madhes, farm employment is seasonal – July-August for plantation and December-January for harvesting. As such, enterprising men venture out to distant lands to make a living. Earlier, Assam and Bengal were the favoured destinations; these days, they go to Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. The women stay home and wait for the men. In the Maithili language, the folksongs of Barahmasa lament men who have failed to come home. Likewise, the Bideshiya theatre genre in Bhojpuri is a tribute to migrant workers who long to return home, even as they slog in unfamiliar lands to earn a living.

These are difficult lands and difficult lives. During winter, chilly winds and the shrouded skies of sheetlahar (extended fog) make the cold eat into the bones. In summer, the temperatures rise to over 40 degrees centigrade in the shade, but rice fields out in the open still have to be prepared before the first rains arrive. After initial bursts of welcome showers, the rains become incessant and bring little respite, alternately poaching and steaming the skin just as the seedlings have to be transplanted. Bourgeois dreamers have gone into raptures over the supposed romance of rural living. But, as the accompanying photographs by Greg Constantine record, the life of a landless labourer in the Nepali Tarai is mostly a constant struggle for survival – with little hope, some faith and, yes, lots of love.

Dust and anticipation
Dalits – almost all of them landless and an unknown number still without Nepali citizenship – earn a living by making the best use of whatever natural resources remain in the public domain. They dig wells, and are believed to be very good at spotting places where water can be found. But they are not allowed to draw water once the well is ceremoniously acquired by a caste-Hindu owner. Baskets woven by the Dalit communities of Doms and Dushadhs are considered sacred for religious rituals in which the weavers are not allowed to participate. In a paradoxical display of inseparability, the fire for a funeral pyre has to be ‘bought’ from a Dom, but they are still not permitted to cast their shadows over any other last rite. Is the price of funeral fire a form of royalty that barbarians, who began to call themselves Aryans, paid to the indigenous discoverers of fire?

The landless haul earth, collect firewood, tend buffaloes, raise pigs and survive as they support the social structure that has conspired to keep them permanently at the bottom. Will anything change with the ascendance of the Maoists to political power in distant Kathmandu? During the recent elections, the landless overwhelmingly voted for the party that claims to represent Dalits and the disenfranchised, among other marginalised sections of Nepal’s population. But history waits and the landless of the Tarai watch. Faith has induced momentary slumber; but revolution in Nepal has shown that, when the downtrodden awake, the state and society have little control over the rage of the masses.



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