Nepal’s Election and the Kamlharis

Nepal has been without an elected government since May 27 of last year.  You’ve been eager, I’m sure, for an update on the election of the new Constituent Assembly (CA) promised for this June 21st.  The election will not be this month.  November is now the aspiration, but there has been some progress.

Political parties have been registering to participate in the election, 139 of them, 76 of which did not exist at the time of the 2008 CA election.  The breakaway Maoist faction has not registered because they say no election is possible under the current circumstances.  Most of the new parties are regional and ethnicity based.  Those getting 1% or more of the total vote will get seats in the CA based on proportional representation.

In the 2008 CA election, 84 parties applied, of which 74 were registered, 54 took part in the election and 25 were elected to the CA.  Most of the parties will again get no seats but the new CA will again be made up of representatives from of many different parties so it will again be hard to avoid stalemate.  One big issue delaying this election is wrangling over the 1% rule.

While the politicians wrangle, protesters stage strikes.  There’s plenty to protest about.  An issue I became aware of only because of strikes is the Kamlhari system of female bonded domestic workers.  Former Kamlharis with the “Struggle Committee for Abolishment of Kamlhari Tradition” recently imposed strikes in 22 districts after police broke up their peaceful demonstrations in Kathmandu and a district administration office.  Schools, shops and other businesses were shut and roads were blocked.

Kamlhari is part of a bonded labor system established millennia ago and institutionalized in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Nepal’s government defines bonded labor as: “a person working in the fields for a land owner, looking after his animals and doing other agricultural works in landlords’ fields and in his household, bound by loans from the landowner”.  You become bonded if you cannot repay a loan.  The system was abolished in 1926, again in 1990 and yet again in 2000 but it continues to exist.

There was an influx of people from the hills to southern Nepal after malaria there was eradicated.  The locals had no records of land they were cultivating.  The more worldly-wise newcomers registered it in their own names and the locals suddenly had landlords demanding rent for what they’d always considered their own.  The only option for many of them was to borrow the money, loans they could in many cases not repay because the land provided only enough for subsistence.

All political parties say they are against the system but even now there are leaders of the traditional ones, almost all of whom are high caste and relatively wealthy, who benefit from bonded laborers.  Thrice-abolished Kamlhari continues to decline but the system is deeply rooted in feudal history like so many aspects of Nepali culture.

Because malaria kept British India out, Nepal was thoroughly isolated until little over half a century ago.  Because geography makes travel in Nepal hard even now, communities are isolated from each other.  Urbanization, cellphones and the internet are motivating change but government is also necessary.  Dictators come to power fast and can change things fast.  Democracy is established slowly because society must change, and democracy must become somewhat established before it can start to deliver benefits.

Nepal’s politicians must learn how to govern and voters must learn how to get good representation (I wish we were setting a better example).  Constant strikes and protests are making daily life even harder for Nepalis but they are an essential part of the process.

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