Poor Nepali Dalits

July 9, 2017 01:00 AM Hira Vishwakarma


Only special packages for poverty-reduction among Dalits will bring meaningful change in their lives.

Now we are in the third year of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this connection, a voluntary review of the status and achievements related to SDGs is scheduled in New York later this month; and Nepal will be participating. The National Planning Commission has already prepared a draft report for presentation there. Regrettably, the draft report does not have a single word on Dalits and thus goes against the spirit of the new constitution that emphasizes the country’s inclusive development. To be specific, Article 40 of the constitution is all about economic and social rights of Dalits. 
It is not clear who will represent Nepal from the government side but there will be many civil society representatives including from the Dalit community. Nepal had made good progress in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that have now been replaced by SDGs. Nepal was able to bring down poverty and improve basic health of its people. The country that witnessed a decade-long civil war finally had something to be happy about. But is this happiness justified for Nepali Dalits? I don’t think it is. 

The main objective of MDGs was to make respective governments accountable to their people and improve their lives by reducing poverty by half and improving other indicators related to human development. Nepal as a country fulfilled its responsibility but it could not fulfill its responsibility to Dalits. The country was successful in substantially bringing down poverty among Brahmin/Chhetri and Newar communities, and similar progress was made among the Dalit community. 

But we have to remember that as poverty was more prevalent among Dalits to start with, still a large segment of Dalits remain poor, and their situation is the worst of all major ethnic groups in the country (see table). In this situation, can Dalits of Nepal rejoice on meeting of national MDG targets? Dalits are not just poor but they lag behind the rest of the country in other important indicators like per capita income, house and land ownership, employment and life expectancy.  

All these data clearly indicate that whatever the efforts of the government and other development partners such as UNDP to bring down poverty, progress has been limited in the case of Dalits. I was myself part of an international team that had been tasked with UNDP to make its aid program in Nepal more inclusive. 

I travelled to many parts of the country including the far-western district of Dadeldhura, the central hill district of Dolkha and Tarai district of Mahottari, the places where UNDP was directly running its Micro Enterprise Development Program (MEDEP) and Livelihood Recovery for Peace (LRP) project. There were many successful examples. I interacted with Dalit entrepreneurs supported by the MEDEP but found that most of them did not come from poor Dalit families. In Mahottari and Sarlahi districts, yes, local Dalits had been able to build houses in their respective communities but their livelihood issues were unaddressed. The main reason for this, I found, was lack of knowledge and skill among implementing local partners. They, for instance, had no solutions for those landless people who were largely dependent on seasonal labor migration to Hariyana and Punjab. Even for this, they had to bribe middlemen and while returning home they were often robbed by local police.

Other than programs related to the Poverty Alleviation Fund, the government has no such direct measure aimed at poverty reduction among Dalits. International development agencies have also focused more on human rights and awareness issues, which don’t necessarily contribute to poverty reduction. All these indicate that unless there are special packages to reduce poverty among Dalits, the SDGs, just like the MDGs, will have little impact in their lives. 

The SDGs focus on five Ps (People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership). But I think instead of the general ‘People’ more specific ‘marginalized and poverty stricken people’ should have been the area of focus. 

In Nepal’s case only special packages aimed at poor Dalits will bring about meaningful change in their lives and lead to lasting peace in the country. Only then will everyone in the country will be able to rejoice on the (future) achievement of SDG goal number one (ending poverty, in all its forms, by 2030). 

Unlike India where civil society and government representatives behave like enemies, in Nepal they tend to work together. Thus, in international events Nepal has a single voice on issues of human rights and of marginalized people. This tradition needs to be kept alive. I thus hope that in the forthcoming event in New York the voices and issues of poor Dalits will be adequately incorporated. 

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