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Date: 11 Apr, 2021

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30 Jun, 2012
Dalit Representation in National Politics of Nepal.
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Dalits in Nepal

 Caste System and Dalits

Dalits in Nepal are a historically state victimised disadvantaged community who have been compelled to lag at the bottom of the social structure and excluded from national development mainstream due to the caste system and extreme Hinduism for centuries.

The caste system was introduced in Nepal by King Jayasthiti Malla (1360-95) about 700 years ago. The National Civil Code, 1854, (Muluki Ain) legalized the caste system and established it as the basis of social mobility. It laid out detailed codes for inter-caste behaviour and specified punishments for their infringement. Such discriminatory legal system and hierarchical social structures, in course of time, formed as a rigid ‘value system’ and ‘codes of social behaviour and practices’. This value system and attitude is still dominant in every sphere of the society, which is propelling ‘untouchability’ and ‘caste-based discriminations’ though it is constitutionally and legally prohibited. Caste based discrimination and untouchability are also in practices within Dalit community that is intra-Dalit discrimination.

According to the government’s figures, Dalits comprise 13 percent of Nepal’s total population. However, Dalit civil society claims it to be about 20 percent; a demographic survey conducted by NNDSWO provides evidence to the claim. Within the Dalit community, there are dozens of sub-caste groups from the hills (Hill Dalits), the Tarai (Tarai/Madhesi Dalits) and Newar community (Newar Dalits).

Socio-economic Status of Dalits

The Dalits lag far behind in their income (the lowest PCI), education (the lowest rate of literacy and enrolment) and other human development indicators (the lowest HDI). Dalits' overall have the lowest household incomes – roughly half the average incomes of Brahman-Chhetri households and less than a third that of Newar households; the Madhesi Dalits have the lowest per capita incomes of all.

Dalits comprise the poorest community in Nepal, in terms of all poverty measures (income, consumption and human development). Their land holdings are small and landlessness is extreme among Dalits (15% Hill and 44% Madhesi Dalits). The Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS), 2004, estimated that almost half of Hill Dalits (48%) fall below the poverty line and incidence of poverty among the Tarai Dalits (46%), which is 15 percent higher than the national average (31%).

The literacy rate among Dalits has grown in absolute terms but the gap between their literacy (33.8%) and the national average (54%) is still wide. The NLSS, 2004, reveals that only 12 percent of Brahmans, Chhetris and Newars have not been to school, compared to 52 percent of the Hill Dalits and 47 percent of the Tarai Dalits.

The life expectancy of Dalits is lower (50.8 years) compared to the national average (59 years). On average Brahmans and Newars live 11 to 12 years longer than the Dalits. Infant mortality is much higher (116.5 per 1000 live births) compared to the national average of 75.2. Under-five mortality is also much higher (171.2 per 1000) than the national average (104.8 per 1000). The nutritional status of Dalits is poor and therefore they are vulnerable to infectious diseases. Health awareness among the Dalits is low. Because of illiteracy, ignorance and other socio-economic factors, their living conditions are unhygienic, contributing to their poor health. The Dalits do not have easy access to clean drinking water and they suffer from water-borne diseases.


Political Participation of Dalits

Dalits' participation in political process and representation in government at the village, district and the national level is insignificant compared to the size of their population. After the people's movement 2006, the country experienced a great change in the political sphere, however, that change has not been able to benefit the Dalit community significantly. The CA election 2008 could elect Dalits to only 8 percent, for instance; furthermore, there is no Dalit representation in the first Government (cabinet) of Republican Nepal.

Dalits' participation in political process remains low despite promises of inclusion in terms of caste and ethnicity by the political parties and the successive governments. ‘The main problems of lower participation of Dalits in politics include predominant control of political parties by “upper” caste people, lack of substantial initiatives by political parties to eliminate untouchability and caste based discrimination and to increase participation and representation of the Dalits and predominance of Brahmanism in all political institutions. The socio-economic background and structural barriers are further hindering to the Dalit leaders to be effective and influential within their parties.


Dalit Women and Children

Dalit Women

Dalit women, comprising about one-fifth of the total population of Nepali women and more than half of the total Dalit population, are the most vulnerable group in Nepal. Dalit women generally have low status with their own groups; they occupy an even more disadvantaged position than the Dalit men. They face three-fold discriminations: from being a woman, from being Dalit and then specifically from being a Dalit woman. Dalit women face violence and exploitation not only from the dominant castes, but also at home within their own families and Dalit communities. Atrocities and violence, such as rape cases, trafficking, accusation of Boxi (witchcraft), child marriage, double marriage by men, and negative society and family response to intra-caste and inter-caste marriage and even dowry systems that prevail in the society, are horrifically prevalent among Dalit women.

Children of Dalit

Children of Dalit families are vulnerable and often discriminated against even in their formal schooling. Due to economic backwardness their access to education is very poor and a significant numbers of Dalit school age children are out of school. Even if their family allows them to attend school rather than work with the family the parents are usually unable to buy uniforms, books and stationery for their children. Some recent government programs such as scholarships and free textbooks, however, are now helping to increase the enrolment of Dalit children.

Being stigmatised as Dalits further induces them to drop out. Various examples of prejudiced behaviour of school authorities have been documented such as deliberately failing Dalit children while granting the top position only to high caste students; Dalit children not permitted to drink water; rude manner of addressing them; putting Dalit children in separate lines; throwing school mid-day meals to these children wrapped in paper while serving it to others on a plate.

The issue of child labour is also acute among Dalit community. Nearly one in every three children in Nepal is a child labourer; and an estimated 1 million children are engaged in hazardous and exploitative activities.  As a result of caste-based discrimination and extreme poverty, children of Dalit households are especially vulnerable to this sort of exploitation. They are over-represented in the number of child labourers involved in bonded labour, commercial sex, and activities similar to slavery.


Tarai/Madheshi Dalits

The exclusions and discrimination experienced by Madhesi Dalits is even worse than that of Hill Dalits. Bantar, Chamar/Ram/Harijan, Dhobi, Dom/Malik, Dushad/Paswan, Halkhor, Khatwe (Khan and Mandal), Musahar, and Tatma are the some of the sub-groups of Terai Dalits. Among them Dom and Musahar community have the worst situation. Landlessness, lack of citizenship, illiteracy, poverty, child marriage, dowry system, social boycott by non-Dalits, Sinopratha, etc. are the major issues of Terai Dalits.


Freed Haliyas and Landless Labourers

Land is the main asset determining an individual’s social status and standard of living in Nepali society. Landlessness has made Dalits economically vulnerable and dependent upon so-called upper caste landlords. Such dependency is often exploited by the landlords, allowing for many abuses against Dalits. Most Dalit victims of violence and discriminations are agricultural and occupational labourers who are generally landless. The root causes of Haliya, Lagi. Phokatto, Balighare, Khalo,Doli, Haruwa, Charuwa, etc. systems are associated with the issue of landlessness and small holding. These systems perpetuate dependency of Dalits forcing them to be inferior citizens in society.

After a long period of advocacy to end the labour exploitation over Dalits, the government has recently declared freedom for Haliyas (bonded labour) and has also announced the end of other such unfair systems and practices. The rehabilitation of the victims of such systems is challenging, however, because more than 80 percent of those victims are landless.


 Dalits Occupational Skills

Most Dalit groups have their own traditional occupational skills like black smithy (iron worker), gold smithy, tailoring, shoemaking etc. Such inherent occupational skills are the only way many Dalits have to solve their hand-to-mouth problems. Unfortunately, all of these occupations associated with Dalits are considered to be of low social status in Nepalese society. Most of these skilful people are not receiving fair value and social respect for their work and their economic status is thus poor. Moreover they are often exploited in the name of Balighare, Khalo, etc. systems and get only minimal payment (mostly in kind/grains) for their works.

In recent days, due to the disregard of their arts and skills, many Dalits are giving up their occupation which has also worsened their livelihoods. In addition, lack of modernization and limited access to markets has put these occupations in danger. Globalization and the flood of cheap international products have further threatened the Dalits' traditional occupations. Developing social respect for these occupations of Dalits and making them competitive in the market is a challenging issue in the economy of Dalit.