Nepal’s Badi community finds itself in a bottomless pit of despair

  • Although the community is slowly weaning off the world’s oldest profession to keep their hearths burning, they are also struggling to shrug off the history they are burdened with
- Basanta Pratap Singh, Dipesh Khatiwada, BAJHANG

Mar 3, 2019-

In a one-room shack in Kholi village in the western district of Bajhang, Laxmi Badi and her four children shiver the night away in hopes of warmer sunshine the next day. At night, they light a fire and try to stay warm. During the day, they lie in the sun and try to recapture the sleep they lost the night before to freezing temperatures.

“I can bear the cold but it’s the children who suffer,” said Laxmi, a 21-year old single mother.

“In January, during a severe cold wave, I woke up in the middle of the night to a dying fire and my six-year-old lying unconscious on the ground. I hurriedly rebuilt the fire, tried to keep her warm, and she finally opened her eyes. I thought I had lost her that night.”

In Chainpur, the district headquarters of Bajhang, and Thalara Rural Municipality, 28 Badi families live in huts built of castaway tarpaulin and old corrugated sheets. Their old homes were demolished by the government in 2017 with the promise to rebuild them, but the state-funded scheme to rebuild these homes has stalled due to a lack of budget, as the villagers were told by local government representatives.

Radha Badi, a 38-year-old mother, now lives in fear of losing her four children to pneumonia. “We don’t have shelter from the harsh winter,” she said. “Many children have started falling sick because of the cold, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

For many in the Badi community in Bajhang district, this is an all-too-common story. From being put up on a pedestal as courtesans and entertainers in royal courts during the Rana regime to having to resort to prostitution to make a livelihood, Badis have gone from one extreme to another in the last century. Although the community is slowly weaning off the world’s oldest profession to keep their hearths burning, they are also struggling to shrug off the history they are burdened with.

One of the country’s most deprived and marginalised groups, the Badi people are Dalits, believed to have migrated from the Kumaon and Garhwal divisions of Uttar Pradesh in India and, as reported by the descendants of the former kings of Salyan’s many smaller fiefdoms, initially settled in the hills of mid-western Nepal.

According to the 2011 Census, there are 38,603 Badis living across the country—less than one percent of Nepal’s total population. This eight-year-old data showed that the number of women was slightly higher than those of men—20,305 females and 18,298 men. Today, Badi settlements are spread across the districts in the mid-western region, primarily in Kailali, Bardiya, Surkhet, Bajhang, Salyan and Dang.

In 2005, the Supreme Court had ordered the government to provide birth registration and citizenship to Badi children. However, a delay in the implementation of the Court’s decision led to a series of protests in Kathmandu two years later.

In 2007, more than 500 members of the Badi community from 23 districts staged a demonstration in front of in Singha Durbar, the government’s secretariat in Kathmandu, led by Uma Devi Badi, a rights activist. The protests subsequently paved the way for the rehabilitation and social integration of the Badi people. Bowing to pressure from the protesters, the government signed a 26-point agreement with the agitating community.

On January 7, 2009, the Cabinet decided to rehabilitate the Badi community by giving them land and training them with income-generating skills. The government’s objective was to end poverty in the community and help women abandon prostitution with other financially rewarding options.

But even today, much of the Badi population is forced to live through—and live with—the same hardships their elders did decades ago.

Parents struggle to provide proper shelters for the family while the children are subjected to marriage at an early age. Men and women plunge themselves into debt, and the children are forced to work menial jobs to eke out a living for the family with a few thousand rupees every month. But with widespread illiteracy and a lack of opportunities and technical training, women and young girls are still resorting to prostitution.

Kitthi Badi does not have a home in Chainpur. The 37-year-old mother told the Post that her hut was padlocked by her landlord four years ago. The mother of five young children was left to fend for herself after her husband took a loan from the local lender, left the village, and disappeared.

Today, there are 14 Badi families living in Chainpur—all of them riddled with debts they have taken either from local moneylenders and shopkeepers or from the Sunar community. Surendra Badi fled his village after facing constant harassment from a money lender. Ramesh Badi also took to the road and has been out of contact with his family for the past three years now.

“We have no means of earning a livelihood. We now resort to begging and whatever little we manage to collect, the moneylenders get their hands on it, including food grains,” said Bamma Bahadur Badi, 28, of Chainpur. It has now become an everyday affair for them to be harassed at the hands of moneylenders, he said, informing that he has been begging in the settlement.

To make ends meet, most villagers keep their land ownership certificates, identity cards issued by the government, and citizenship certificates as collateral. Since most borrowers are unable to pay back their loans, the documents that govern their lives end up in the lands of moneylenders.

Many families, out of desperation to earn cash so they can feed themselves and pay off their loans, force their children into daily wage labour. It is not uncommon to see large groups of Badi children in Thalara carrying heavy loads on their backs. Even during the middle of winter, their foreheads are glistening with sweat, as they make their way uphill, often with loads twice their weight. On a good day, a Badi child porter makes Rs100 to Rs150.

Nirmala Badi, a 10-year-old girl carrying two cartons of liquor and assorted goods, said that she makes about Rs3,000 to Rs4,000 per month, and spends only about Rs500 to Rs600 on herself. “I give the rest of my earnings to my parents,” she said. Her parents spend the money on alcohol.

Chakru Devi Rokaya, one of the women volunteers in Thalara who has been working relentlessly for the Badi community, says that children are most vulnerable in the community.

“They are not only made to earn their daily bread through hard labour but are also exposed to physical harm at the hands of their parents who are supposed to be their primary caregivers,” said Rokaya. But some Badi parents are unabashedly defensive about the practice of forcing children to provide for their family.

“We have been living like this for a long, long time,” said Range Badi, who appeared inebriated as he spoke with the Post. “Our children work and make sure we get our alcohol.” Parents like Range said they did the same for their parents, and it is only fitting that their children do the same for them. “They don’t have to think about their future too hard,” he said. “If they look after us now, their children will look after them later. That’s just how it works.”

Range’s defiance pales in comparison to some of the other Badi men, who take things a step farther by engaging their families—primarily wives and daughters—in prostitution. Local representatives in Thalara say that because prostitution is ‘easy money’ for some families, they don’t feel the need to find other forms of employment.

“Even the men and husbands are active participants in this trade—they are the ones who find clients for the women,” said Gangu Devi Khadayat, vice-chairperson of Thalara Rural Municipality. Khadayat said that although there have been attempts to move the families away from forcing their children into child labour and their women into prostitution, it hasn’t been easy to motivate them.

Uma Badi, who has dedicated her life to advocating for the rights of the Badi community and is an assembly member for the Sudurpashchim Province, said the government should implement decisions made in the past to reintegrate Badi people into mainstream society.

“Badi women should be rehabilitated with income-generating skills,” she said.In a report presented to the government on December 26, 2008, by the Rashtriya Badi Adhikar Sangharsha Samiti, rights advocates recommended that ending the scourge of poverty among the Badis and breaking the dependence of their women on prostitution to earn money would require the country to introduce measures to bring Badi people into the wider society.

Then-minister for peace and reconstruction Janardan Sharma had taken a proposal to the Cabinet which underlined the dependence of Badi women on prostitution and the need to rehabilitate the community by providing them land and teaching them income-generating skills. Regarding the proposal presented by Sharma, the Cabinet on January 7, 2009, decided to end poverty in the Badi community and help women abandon prostitution with income-generation options. However, the Badi people have been protesting against the government’s failure to implement the agreement signed with them 10 years ago.“The government hasn’t taken any initiatives to implement the decision. We don’t know why; they haven’t given us a reason,” said Uma Badi, adding that Badi women are still compelled to engage in prostitution.

“If the government implements programmes to rehabilitate the Badi community by providing them with land and teaching them income-generating skills, they can be brought into the mainstream,” Uma Badi told the Post.Members of the Badi community agree, arguing that they aren’t entirely to blame when outreach and welfare programmes targeting the Badi families don’t work. “We don’t have land or ownership of tangible assets, and we depend on handouts,”

says Tek Badi, a resident in Chainpur. “Until the authorities in charge launch special programmes aimed at our long-term welfare, we have little choice but to resort to begging and prostitution.”

For Badis like Tek, investing in teaching and retaining technical skills that generate a steady income would encourage families.“We know how to make clay pots,” he says. “If we had a conducive environment to take this skill forward and turn it into an income-generating profession, then maybe we could start down the path of reform.”

But teaching itself is a challenge within the Badi community.

The nearest higher secondary school in the area, named after the village, is about 500 metres from the Badi settlement, which has 28 families. But the school’s records show that only one Badi student has been attending classes regularly.Dharmaraj Upadhayay, a teacher from Thalara Higher Secondary School, said that most Badi parents don’t send their children to school. Those who do, don’t send them regularly.

“Although we frequently organise awareness programmes for parents, underlining the importance of education and how crucial it is for their children to attend schools, they don’t listen to us,” Upadhyay said. “They seem to prefer to have their children beg or carry loads on their backs so they can continue their alcoholic lifestyle.”

In Chainpur, there are two community schools near a Badi settlement and only two Badi children attend school regularly. “Last year, 15 Badi children were admitted to our school. But only one or two children came to classes,” said Gajendra Rasaili, headmaster of Namuna Lower Secondary School at the district headquarters. According to a recent study conducted by the Jaya Prithvi Community Study Centre and the District Education Unit, 43 Badi children dropped out of school in the middle of the current academic year.

Rasaili said that most parents seek admission for their children for the scholarships available. “Once they receive the scholarship money, they stop their children from attending classes,” he said. “No one has been admitted this academic session.”

Dipesh Khatiwada reported from Kathmandu.

Published: 03-03-2019 10:54

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