National

These villagers don’t know any other home than Nepal. But they’re still stateless.

  • In a tiny village in western Nepal, arcane laws and government bureaucracy have left families without citizenship and pushed them further into poverty.
- Tsering Ngodup Lama, BARDIYA

Feb 8, 2019-

Pramod Raidas has vivid memories of the day the government’s citizenship distribution team arrived in his village of Neemkhotiya in Bardiya district. Pramod’s siblings were able to get their citizenship certificates, but Pramod was born on December 22, 1990, and according to the citizenship distribution team, he wasn’t eligible for citizenship.

That was in 2007 and such teams had been deployed across the country after the interim government had introduced the Citizenship Act, which stated that those born in Nepal before April 13, 1990—all of Pramod’s siblings were born before the date—and “domiciled permanently” in Nepal would be deemed citizens by birth. This was a one-time opportunity for thousands of people in the country who were stateless to become Nepali citizens.

Pramod faced a dilemma. He mulled over lying about his age to get his citizenship, but then it would render his eighth grade transcript—it carried his real date of birth—useless. He decided to not change the date, thinking that there would be other opportunities to get citizenship in the future. For Pramod, 17 then and full of optimism, his decision to not lie about his age would go on to have crippling repercussions that would determine the trajectory of his life.

Pramod’s case is hardly an anomaly in Neemkhotiya. In this tiny village about five kilometres from the nearest town of Gulariya, there are about 75 households consisting mostly of Madhesi Dalits, where dozens of residents remain without citizenship. Many of them, like Pramod, were too young to obtain citizenship when the government teams arrived in their village. Others were across the border in India, working menial jobs to support their families and couldn’t afford the travel back to Nepal. Without citizenship—a document mandatory to obtain anything from a passport to a driving license to land permits—many Madhesi Dalits have been forced to lead their lives within the confines of the village, locked in a cycle of perpetual poverty.

On the surface, it is difficult to distinguish Neemkhotiya from the many similar villages that dot the country’s southern plains. There are tracts of agricultural lands, on which the majority of villagers depend on to eke out their living. The houses are  mostly single-storeyed and made out of mud. On any warm January afternoon, women draped in colourful saris of blue, red, pink can be seen harvesting the last potatoes from the fields. On many fields, the potatoes have already been replaced by wheat and mustard.

Pramod Raidas in his home in Neemkhotiya Village. Pramod, who is 28-years-old, has never had citizenship

All photos by Tsering Ngodup Lama

To understand how dozens of villagers have been reduced to a life of statelessness for so long, it is important to understand the Land Reform Act of 1964, introduced by King Mahendra Shah.

“For centuries, landlords, who owned vast swathes of land in the country, relied on labourers to farm their land. The labourers were allowed to live on the property and were paid in kind,” says Jagat Basnet, a Kathmandu-based researcher on depeasantisation—a process of phasing out the peasant class and its traditional practices—in Nepal. The Act made it mandatory for landlords to give labourers 25 percent of the land they tilled. But to be eligible to acquire this land, a labourer needed to furnish an employment contract between him and the landlord, and a contract for grain payment between the two. The act also made it compulsory for landlords to provide these two contracts to their labourers.

“Not wanting to part with their land, many landlords didn’t issue the two contracts to their labourers. Many of them even made sure that their labourers didn’t get citizenship,” says Basnet. “Many of the landlords were government officials themselves or had connections with powerful people in the government. They exerted their influence in making sure that their labourers didn’t get the paperwork necessary to obtain citizenship.”

To acquire citizenship during the Panchayat regime, between 1960 and 1990, a person had to acquire a recommendation letter from the local government office and a clarification letter from the local police station stating that s/he is not part of any anti-Panchayat movement, says Basnet. “By denying their labourers citizenship, the landlords made sure that they had no other option but to work for them,” he says.

A majority of labourers who worked for landlords in the Tarai were, and still are, either from the lower caste or from historically marginalised backgrounds. Many of them didn’t speak Nepali, which made it all the more challenging for them to raise their grievances to government officials, most of whom belonged to the upper Bahun-Chhetri castes and spoke only Nepali.

Pramod, now 28, grew up listening to tales of how his father was exploited by landlords and government officials. “My father worked for a landlord for many years. Every time he asked for the contract letters, the landlord kept brushing off the issue, assuring my father that he need not worry, and that he would get his share of the land. The landlord even promised to help my father get his citizenship,” says Pramod. “One day, my father learned that the landlord had sold the entire property. With no legal documents to make claims, my father was forced to leave the land.”

Pramod’s father did apply for citizenship several times. “When he went to the village chief asking for help in acquiring citizenship, my father was told to pay a bribe of 300 rupees. How do you expect a man who could barely cobble together 10 rupees a month to pay 300 rupees?” says Pramod. His father applied for citizenship again in 1990, when a citizenship distribution team arrived in his village, but couldn’t obtain one because he couldn’t afford to pay the bribe the officials demanded.

Without citizenship, many like Pramod’s father were left with no other choice but to work as farm labourers, a way to make a living that left him mired in poverty. “Like many farm labourers, my father too was paid in kind by his landlord. He would bring home corn, vegetables and pulses,” says Pramod. “My siblings and I have gone to bed after eating very little, with our stomachs still growling. Our happiest days were when our father brought home rice, which was rare.”

The family was so poor that when Pramod’s father contracted cataract, they didn’t have any money for surgery. They watched helplessly as his vision weakened by the day, until he turned completely blind. “My father passed away 20 years ago,”  says Pramod. “He lived his last few years in complete darkness.”

“Nobody wants to live on government land”

Without citizenship to buy land, many villagers have had no option but to build their homes on government land. Most of the houses in Neemkhoitya are built alongside the roads that run through the village.

Kes Rani Raidas’ house is in the northeast part of the village and lies right beside a gravelled motorable road that connects Gulariya with Rajapur, another municipality in Bardiya. When the local government decided to expand the road a year ago, Kes Rani was told to demolish her house. She was forced to comply, and since then, her family has been living in what used to be their livestock shed.

Kes Rani’s house is devoid of anything that’s not absolutely essential. There’s only one wooden bed in the house, on which her eldest son and his wife sleep. Providing her son and his wife with some sort of privacy is a block of stones that resembles a wall. Her other four children sleep together in one corner of the house, on the floor. In the centre of the house are a pair of earthen cooking stoves, and on top of them are the family’s few cooking utensils. With no cupboards, the clothes lay hung on ropes that are tied to wooden logs that are the house’s pillars.

Kes Rani Raidas with her son Manoj Raidas. Nobody in their family has citizenship.

The house is just big enough for her children and her daughter-in-law to sleep in, so Kes Rani and her husband sleep in a makeshift animal shed, which they share with the family’s young calf.

“Nobody wants to live on government land, but what land do I build my house on when no one in my family has citizenship?” says Kes Rani. “When the citizenship distribution team arrived here in 2007, my husband and I were in Dehradun, working labour jobs to feed our family and we couldn’t obtain citizenship. My oldest child was only 12, so he couldn’t get one as well.”

Another stretch of road that runs through the village is also slated for expansion next month. Several houses will be demolished, one of which belongs to Pramod. “There’s no vacant land behind my house. I don’t know where I’ll end up,” he says.

Making matters worse is the fact that many of the houses, especially in the low lying areas, were built as recently as 2017. That year, the Babai River flooded swathes of land in Bardiya district, and left Neemkhotiya inundated by water for days. The flooding caused the village’s mud houses to crumble and collapse. It washed away the villagers’ stock of harvested grains—which they keep inside their homes, and depend on to feed their families through the year. The flood also swept away livestock and destroyed crops, pushing many families deeper into poverty.

But 2017 wasn’t the first time Babai River wreaked havoc in the village. The river had flooded in 2014, too, and did extensive damage to property in the village.

In both years, the government had announced aid for those whose homes were destroyed by the floods. The victims just had to provide the ownership document for the land on which their destroyed houses were built, which many in Neemkhotiya didn’t—and still don’t—have.

“In 2014, only two families from the village received rebuilding aid from the government, while in 2017, no one in the village did,” says Pramod. This left many villagers to rebuild their houses by themselves. Many like Pramod are still repaying the loans they were forced to take to build their homes.

“What’s the point of going to school”

On any given afternoon in Neemkhotiya, it’s not uncommon to see children of school-going age running around, playing and working in the fields alongside their parents instead of sitting in classrooms. Parents in the village don’t send their children to school. Not because they don’t want their children to get an education, but because it won’t make a difference anyway, they say.

“What is the point of sending our children to school when we know they won’t get jobs without citizenship?” Kes Rani says.

None of Kes Rani’s five children—two daughters, aged 16 and 7, and three sons, aged 25, 15, 12—go to school. Her eldest son, Manoj Raidas, stopped going to school when he was in second grade. “It had become increasingly difficult for us to pay for his books and stationery. So when he stopped going to school, we were fine with it,” she says.

For many villagers, Pramod has become an example of the futility of attending school. Pramod is the only person in the village to have gone to college, but when he graduated three years ago, he couldn’t get employed because he didn’t have a citizenship card.

Having lived in extreme poverty, Pramod knew from a very young age that education could be the key to pull his family out of a life of destitution. When he went to gain admission at the local primary school, the family, with great difficulty, managed to pay the admission fee. “Throughout my primary school, my mother kept telling me to quit. It was not that my mother didn’t want me to get an education, she just couldn’t afford to buy me school supplies,” says Pramod.

When Pramod reached fifth grade, he decided that he wanted to become a teacher. “For a child of stateless parents, it was an audacious goal to set. Of course, I didn’t know what being stateless meant then,” says Pramod. To be able to pay for his school expenses, Pramod started working as a helper at a sugar mill. He was only 12.

By the time he finished his college, he had worked as a labourer at construction sites and farms, and as a teacher. After college, he applied for a teaching job at three private schools,  a store attendant at an ayurvedic medical store and a salesman at a cloth shop, all in Gulariya. But they didn’t hire him because he didn’t have citizenship.

Pramod now works as a farm labourer—just like his father. Like other villagers, he leases lands from landlords every year and grows wheat, mustard and potatoes, among other crops. In return, the landlords give him half of the land’s yields, some of which he keeps for himself and the rest he sells in the market.

This year, he has managed to lease 12 kathas of land from three different landlords. Between farming seasons, he goes to find work on construction sites, and on other people’s fields, for which he gets paid Rs 700 to 800 a day.

“If I had citizenship, I would have given the Public Service Commision exams and gotten a government job or I would have gone to the Middle East,” says Pramod. “I could have provided a better life for my mother, wife and son.”

The long wait

For the many stateless people in the country, the Citizenship Act 2006 provided them an opportunity to legally register themselves as Nepalis. But the Act also stated that a child born to a citizen only after s/he has acquired citizenship by birth, if his/her father and mother both are citizens of Nepal, shall be entitled to Nepali citizenship by descent upon his/her attaining the age of maturity. This rendered children born to those before they acquired citizenship by birth ineligible for citizenship.

However, an amendment made to the Act in line with the new constitution stated that a child of a citizen who has acquired citizenship by birth before the commencement of the constitution, provided that the child’s parents are Nepali citizens, is entitled to Nepali citizenship by descent once s/he reaches 16. But the amendment made in 2015 to the Citizenship Act has yet to be reflected in the laws.

This has forced many to live a stateless life, even though the constitution guarantees them citizenship. Twenty-year-old Geeta Raidas, also from Neemkhotiya, is one of them. Geeta’s mother has citizenship by descent and her father has citizenship by birth, obtained in 2007. “I have visited government offices at least three times to enquire about applying for citizenship, and each time the officials tell me that there are simply no laws upon which they can provide me with citizenship,” says Geeta.

But there’s hope for those like Geeta. An amendment bill seeking to amend the Citizenship Act 2006 was presented in Parliament in August last year. The bill will allow every child, irrespective of when they were born to a Nepali citizen who has acquired citizenship by birth—provided that the child’s parents are Nepali citizens—to acquire Nepali citizenship once s/he reaches 16.

Twenty-year-old Geeta Raidas with her birth certifiate and a photocopy of her mother’s citizenship.

“The amendment bill shouldn’t take more than two months to pass, and when it does, it will make many in Neemkhotiya eligible for citizenship,” says the Chief District Officer of Bardiya District Ram Bahadur Kurumbang. However, 57 lawmakers from different political parties have suggested 23 proposals seeking deliberations and amendments to the amendment bill.

Discussion on the bill at the State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of Parliament began only on January 25, 2019 and constitution experts say that it’s impossible to give a timeframe on how long it might take to have the amendment bill passed.

But for those like Pramod—whose father died and whose mother doesn’t have citizenship—statelessness is a permanent reality. “My father was born in this country and lived his whole life here. I was born here and have lived here my whole life. My siblings are all Nepali citizens,” says Pramod. “This is the only country I know. Where do I go now?”

Published: 09-02-2019 06:30

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