Opinion

Why Nations Fail

Caste and coercion in Nepal

Slavery in Nepal was abolished only in 1921. Corvée, forced labor, was made illegal in 1952, but survived. It was only in 2000 that various sorts of coerced and bonded labor finally disappeared.

As late as the early 1990s in the Western parts of Terai, the lowland forest area of Nepal which borders India, many rural people were forced to work 30 to 35 days a year in unpaid labor services. The most important institution in this region was that of Kamaiya labor. Kamaiya was a particular type of servile labor relation where superficially workers and landlords freely entered into contractual relations during the festival of Maghesakranti (first day of the Magha month of the Nepali calendar), which starts on January 14. In practice, the majority of the workers were in debt to various masters, and debts are passed between generations with landlords buying and selling Kamaiya, a situation akin to chattel slavery. In 1992 a government report estimated that there were still about 20,000 Kamaiya households, possibly 116,000 adults and children. The report found that on the average, a Kamaiya worked about 13 hours a day and a male adult worker might receive a daily income of only around 11 Rupees, about 14 US cents. Using the legal minimum wage of 60 rupees for eight-hour work per day, such a worker ought to be getting 102 Rupees for the 13-hour work, about US$1.29, not exactly a fortune but better than 14 cents. Other research by the International Labour Organization using data from Banke district suggests much longer work hours, with a working day for men of as much as 17 hours a day during the heyday of the Kamaiya system.

Time Use for Bonded Male Laborer; Source: Bhadra, Chandra (2006) “Gender Dynamics in Bonded Labour in Nepal,” International Labour Organization.

All these bonded laborers had something else in common, they were all either Dalits (‘untouchables’) or Janajatis which is a collective term for people speaking Tibetan-Burmese languages such as Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs and Sherpas.  Right up to the present day Nepal has been dominated by high caste elites, known as the Parbatiyas, made up of the Brahmin and Chettri castes. Brahmins and Chettris comprise only 28% of the population according to the 2001 census, but they are massively overrepresented in politics (e.g., as ministers, members of parliament and leaders of political parties), the legal profession, the civil service, and professional fields. Dalits and Janajatis, though they make up 45% of the population, have historically had more or less no representation in any of the areas. The caste system is a rigid form of occupational segregation, handed down from parents to children and severely blocks the opportunities and life chances of those at the bottom of the hierarchy. A society with a caste system wastes a vast amount of its economic potential. Right up to the present day much of the economy of Nepal has been based on labor coercion, repression and exclusion – that is, on highly extractive economic institutions.

And you guessed it: Nepal is a very very poor country, with per capita income only about 40th of the US.

Who’s afraid of economic development?

Surely even the most kleptocratic dictator would be in favor of economic development. Economic development means greater income, greater taxes and more stuff to grab, so what’s not to like about it? But actually, it often doesn’t work that way.

In the early 1980s in Takasera, a village in Rukum District in western Nepal, a group of locals decided to begin a development project and bought a Swiss-made water mill which would power machinery such as a press to make oil and a saw mill. The community sent a group of men to Kathmandu who learned how to dismantle the machinery and then put it back together again. The machinery was brought back and successfully put into operation. In 1984, a government official wrote saying that in autonomously undertaking this project the community had “usurped the role of the king” and the mill would have to be shut down. When the locals refused, the police was sent to destroy the mill. The mill was only saved because the villagers were able to ambush and disarm the police.

So why was the Nepalese government opposed to the mill? The answer is that the monarchy and the elite surrounding it, who controlled the government, were afraid of becoming political losers. Economic progress brings social and political change, eroding the political power of elites and rulers, who in response often prefer to sacrifice economic development for political stability.

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