Print Edition - 2017-09-23  |  On Saturday

Flood recovery plan set to exclude tenant farmers

  • While the government announced a Rs 1.25 billion agricultural recovery package, this aid is unlikely to reach farmers because they lack formal documentation certifying tenancy
- Peter Gill, BHOLA PASWAN
The government has not yet begun distributing any of the announced aid package at the local level. The District Agriculture Development Office has not yet received instructions from Kathmandu for aid distribution, even though thousands of farmers have submitted applications

Sep 23, 2017-In Pipara, a predominantly Dalit settlement in Kanchanpur Municpality of Saptari District, floods hit mid-day on August 12. Radha Devi Sada, 60, sits near the earthen foundation of her former home, recounting the flood’s toll. She and her husband, with whom she lives alone, were able to save their most precious belongings—money, citizenship cards, and some clothes—before taking shelter at the local health post with their neighbours. But the flood caused their mud-and-wattle home to collapse and severely damaged their rice crop.

What’s more, Sada explains, the couple are tenant-farmers and they wonder how they will ever pay their landlord their rent this year. And while the government announced a record-breaking Rs 1.25 billion (12.2 million USD) agricultural recovery package on August 27, this aid is unlikely to reach tenant farmers like Sada because, like the most tenant farmers in Nepal, she lacks formal documentation certifying her tenancy.

Tenants suffer damages

The Ministry of Agricultural Development has estimated that floods in mid-August caused damage worth Rs 5.84 billion throughout Nepal. Much of this damage affected tenant farmers. According to the 2010-11 National Living Standards Survey conducted by the government, 32 percent of families practice at least some tenant-farming and five percent rely solely on rented agricultural land.

The damage was acute in Pipara, where most farmers are tenants. The village is composed mostly of women, children and the elderly, since young men go to work in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. A year ago, the government gave families in Pipara small plots of land as part of a programme for landless Dalits. The plots are large enough for a residence, but not for farming. 

“We need to work in the fields to feed our children, but we haven’t any farmland,” says Gita Devi Sada, 35, a village resident. 

Each year, families invest their time, labour, materials, and money in tilling, planting, weeding, and harvesting rice and wheat crops. This year, many Pipara households face severe losses, and people are unsure how they will pay rent to their landlords.  

Although tenants used to pay half of the total harvest to their landlords, these days most tenant farmers pay fixed amounts, no matter if it is a good harvest or a bad one. In Pipara, the average rent is 1,600 kg of rice per bigha, which is equivalent to half the crop in a good year. 

Villagers say that the local landlords do not forgive rents in case of a bad harvest.  Rent must be made up for the next year if it cannot be paid this year, driving farmers into debt. 

Government aid for landlords

As if this were not bad enough, farmers in Pipara are unlikely to receive aid from the government’s agricultural crop recovery plan since they lack title to the land they farm.

The government has not yet begun distributing any of the announced aid package at the local level. According to Bhagirath Yadav, a Senior Agricultural Officer, the District Agriculture Development Office has not yet received instructions from Kathmandu for aid distribution, even though thousands of farmers have submitted applications.

Whenever the aid is distributed, farmers will need to show documentation in order to be eligible. “Otherwise, how are we to know if the person giving the application is really the farmer?” says Yadav.

Tenant farmers who can show a written agreement demonstrating that they are tenants may claim aid, says Yadav. But in Pipara, few residents possess such documentation, because rental agreements are almost always verbal.

Some landlords here say they intend to share the government compensation with their tenants. Reached by phone, a local landlord named Shailesh Singh, who is also a professor in Rajbiraj, said he had applied for compensation on his tenants’ behalf.  When asked if he would give them a discount on this year’s rent, he said he was undecided.


Solutions and stop-gaps

Chaturman Tamang, 68, a Pipara resident, says that “If the government pays the landlord, then the tenants should also get half, at the least.” 

Jagat Deuja, the Director of the Community Self-Reliance Center, an NGO that advocates for landless people, agrees. Deuja says that in order to prevent abuse of the system, the government could require tenants to demonstrate letters of recommendation from their local ward representatives, certifying their tenancy. “The larger the role local government has in the process, the more effective it will be,” says Deuja.

In addition, Deuja argues the government needs to recognise informal tenancy.  Because landless people are frequently illiterate, they are reluctant to sign written agreements and so they enter into verbal agreements with landlords. 

For the time being, Pipara residents have few options. 

Some have discussed forming a committee to advocate for local tenants, though they have yet to do so.  Many villagers have been busy in campaigns for Province 2 local elections, since they can earn small amounts by attending rallies and door-to-door campaigns.

Villagers whose houses were completely destroyed are eligible for a meagre government relief stipend of Rs 70 per day for one month, but few are receiving it. Only 258 families in all of Saptari District have signed up for that allowance, according to Saptari’s Chief District Officer, Bhagirath Pande. 

For now, recovery from the flood has been slow paced. A small campaign led by Jay Paudyal, a journalist who writes the popular blog Stories of Nepal, is rebuilding a few houses in Pipara. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s cabinet has also approved a nationwide plan to provide Rs 25,000 per house that is completely destroyed, but it has yet to implement this policy in Saptari. 

The amount is far less than compensation for victims of the 2015 earthquakes, who receive Rs 300,000 upon completing the construction of their houses. And if earthquake reconstruction is a measure to judge by, rebuilding flood-hit housing will be a long process. 

Published: 23-09-2017 07:27

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