Emancipation of bonded labourers in Nepal

The Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal (OHCHR-Nepal) has been working to help set free and rehabilitate “Haliyas” – bonded labourers from traditionally marginalized communities who have been forced to work without pay for generations.

OHCHR-Nepal staff talking to a former Haliya about life after the abolition of the Haliya system © Chitralekha Massey/OHCHR-NepalThe Haliya system is practised in the hill districts of the mid and far Western regions of Nepal, affecting more than 100,000 persons including children. Most of them are Dalits, often considered ‘untouchables’ at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, and indigenous peoples who have long been targets of all forms of discrimination.

Most Haliyas are landless and they work for landowners to pay off the principal and interest of loans taken by their ancestors. As they do not earn cash, they are unable to pay the debts, which are then passed on to the next generation.

Despite outlawing many of these practices in recent years, the authorities in Nepal have yet to introduce rehabilitation programmes for Haliyas.

OHCHR-Nepal’s Far Western Region Office has developed a project for the emancipation and rehabilitation of Haliyas in Dadeldhura, the district where most of them live. The project focuses on monitoring, advocacy and capacity development of local civil society organisations, including Haliya associations, and coordination with donor agencies.

“We need meaningful rehabilitation of the freed Haliyas with the provision of adequate food and housing, free health and education facilities for the children of the freed Haliyas and appropriate legal provisions to regulate Haliya labour,” said Chakra B.K, Central Coordinator of the Haliyas Federation.

OHCHR has been playing a crucial role in facilitating dialogue between the Haliya Federation and government authorities. Last year, it brought together government agencies, Haliya and Dalit organisations, civil society groups and donor agencies to develop an integrated rights-based approach to tackling the problems. They agreed on a district plan of action, and secured a commitment from the government for implementation.

The Dadeldhura initiative has fed into the national campaign for Haliya emancipation. Last September, the government issued a declaration that formally emancipated Haliyas, annulled loans and established a Working Committee (WC) on Haliya rehabilitation.

The Committee’s recommendations include annulment of loans, formation of a Haliya Commission, distribution of land, drafting of a Haliya Labour Prohibition Act, a national survey to design rehabilitation measures, free secondary education, and eliminating discrimination against Haliya.

While the steps taken by the Government are important, many Haliyas are facing new problems with their landlords, with some under threat to repay loans or to continue working in debt-bonded labour.

“We have freedom of choice, a sense of dignity and pride after emancipation by the government; however, our living standard has become worse as our landlords have stopped providing work and additional support such as food, health, and construction materials, which we used to get before,” said former Haliya Dan Singh Talle of Gujallek Village, Amargadhi Municipality, Dadeldhura District.

In response, OHCHR-Nepal last month organised a confidence-building workshop for former Haliyas, landowners, and representatives of government and civil society.

“We will continue to support civil society efforts at both district and national levels to develop concrete proposals to implement the Committee’s recommendations, complemented by advocacy when necessary,” said Buthdy Sem, acting head of the Far Western Regional Office of OHCHR-Nepal.

16 July 2009