SANGACHOK (SINDHUPALCHOK), June 27: For 40-year old farmer Jitman Tamang, this is usually the time of the year when he has to decide between sending his two teenage sons to Kathmandu to work as laborers or keep them at home to help him harvest his maize farms. His decision depends on his maize production but the situation already looks bleak.
This year´s late monsoon has resulted in low maize production that has caused panic among the farmers in this predominantly Tamang-populated remote Kolpata village of Sangachok VDC who depend entirely on agriculture for their livelihood.
"This has been a terrible year for our maize farms," says Jitman. "We´re doomed. Even the gods have abandoned us."
As a young boy, Jitman never wanted to grow up to be a farmer as his dream was to work as a government official. But when his father abandoned the family, his mother couldn´t afford to send him to school. She asked Jitman to quit school to help her in the farm.
"I didn´t want the same for my children so I send them to schools with hope of ending such a difficult life," explains Jitman. That however is unlikely to happen. Both his sons dropped out of school last year as they kept on failing every year and were tired of repeating their grades. His two young daughters are still struggling in school and he fears they will not complete school either.
"Language is a problem for Tamang children," he laments. "It´s hard to study well when our mother tongue is Tamang."
It is not just his children but almost every household in this Tamang-speaking village has at least one or two of their children quitting school or performing poorly.
"Most of the time, it is like playing a staring game in the classroom," says 17-year old Bijay Tamang, who dropped out of grade eight three years ago due to language difficulties. "The teacher keeps on lecturing and we just stare at him without learning anything."
Today, he works as a labourer at a construction site in Bhaktapur and his brother followed suit recently.
"We can speak Nepali fluently but it is difficult to understand the teachers when they read every word from the books to teach," says Bijay explaining that the texts are difficult to comprehend. "Most of the Tamang students who are still in school either fail or pass with very low grades. Many failed in SLC this year."
Concerned with high dropout rates and poor performance of mostly Tamang kids, the local community requested the school to hire Tamang-speaking teachers. But the school administration said they had no budget. The villagers even offered to contribute funds to pay for the teachers´ salaries with whatever little savings they have. But the school failed to listen.
After consistent push, the school principal who happened to speak Tamang decided to quit his position to concentrate on teaching.
"Few of us are lucky enough to finish our school. But it is not possible in the village," says high school student Sanjeev Thokar, who went to Bhaktapur to complete school but he had to give up speaking Tamang while living with family there. Thokar says that most Tamang children have to migrate to Kathmandu for proper education but at the cost of losing their own language.
"We are very desperate to educate our children," says Sita Tamang, a 35-year old mother of two sons. "Our only alternative is to make them stop speaking our own language but that would be like killing our mothers and fathers."
Like many Tamang parents, Sita is in a catch-22 situation as she has to choose between children´s quality education and preserving their mother tongue. "Both are important to us. But my children come first," she says.
Many Tamang villagers here say that such hard choice is really affecting them. "In this way, our Tamang identity will be lost," says Sita.
Many Tamang parents told Republica that they don´t want their own village to turn into something like the huge Magar settlement in Ranathok village, just a kilometer down the road, where most Magar families don´t speak their native language anymore. Their children are however doing very well in education and easily competing with children from high caste groups.
The issue of identity especially preserving the language has been growing a lot in Sindupalchowk, not just among the Tamangs but also among other ethnic groups like Danuwar, Majhi, Newar, Sherpa, Thami, Gurung and the Magar. The talk of ethnic federalism has actually provoked a lot of primordial interest on their identities.
"We have become very conscious about our own roots, which we had not paid attention before. I heard the new federal system will give us more opportunity to become equal as the high castes," says Singha Bahadur Majhi of Arugbate village of Sikarpur VDC, which house over 300 Majhi families.
Together with Brahmins, Chettris and Dalits, Sindhupalchowk district is today a multi-ethnic society and has become a closely-knit society unlike before when the VDCs were so isolated from each other only a few decades back. The massive road networks across the district´s 79 VDCs have helped in multi-ethnic contact and economic interdependence. While most Tamangs are farmers or wage laborers, many have also transformed themselves into traders in their own VDCs and the markets are growing massively across the district in both rural and urban bases.
There are now more economic activities and mobility of the villagers has increased. This has happened with the efforts of both the high caste and ethnic communities for which the government has made very little contribution toward developing local economy. The foremost visible effort of the government has been to construct the roads, some of which are even many times better than the capital city´s but that is where the buck stops.
However, the many Tamang villages in the remotest parts of the district still suffer from utter government neglect. Irrigation system is very poor, there is acute shortage of drinking water and the state of health services and schools are in bad state.
"You can easily see how we are running things ourselves in this district," says Purna Pakhrin, a local Tamang trader. "So we don´t want any political party or minister from Kathmandu to tell us what to do. We make our own district."
"I think we can run our own federal state," says 70-year old Pakhrin, although he is careful not to say that his Tamang community wants a single Tamang state, a view which many Tamangs -- both elites and ordinary villagers -- agree.
Many here feel that this is a very sensitive issue and people have to be educated about it.
"We are alright with a single or multiethnic state but at the same time, we don´t want other ethnic groups to panic about it," says Sangay Lama, 20, of remote Kot VDC. "But definitely, we need a federal state."
Sangay feels that situation has changed a lot and there is really no feeling of discrimination as experienced by his fathers and grandfathers but there is still a need to work hard toward making Sindhupalchok an equal society.
"Education is key and I know every member of Brahmin, Chettri or Newar family educates their children," he adds. "But for Tamang families, this still remains a dream and this has to change."
"One of the saddest stories of this district is the lack of education facilities," Nil Bahadur Shahi, a local businessman says, adding, "Many are still deprived because of the government´s neglect and indifference of the political parties."
Shahi also runs a local school with few Tamang kids because of language difficulties. He said that the government has been aware of their poor educational status and yet the neglect continues. It should have introduced special programs by including Tamang-speaking teachers to teach in their own language in the remote Tamang-populated villages where they only speak their own language, he explained.
"We all encourage that here in this district," Shahi adds. "If a multi-ethnic federal state can make that possible, we will welcome the change."
A large number of people whom Republica interviewed said that they need to understand what a federal state means.
"When you have so little knowledge, it is bound to get too speculative and will cause panic," feels Sundar Tamang, a Maoist party worker in the district. "The intellectuals who started this debate have to come here and explain."
The capital-centric debate on the modalities of federalism is not helping locals understand, the people here feel. They say the public debate should start in the villages now, instead of confining the intellectual debate in Kathmandu.