When Nepal's government outlawed bonded labour in 2008 and promised to compensate victims, farmworker Hiralal Pariyar was elated to walk away from a life spent in virtual slavery. But the compensation never came, leaving a homeless and penniless Pariyar little choice but to return to his old landlord. "Nothing has changed in six years. From the day I was born until now, the landlord has owned my life," the 38-year-old told AFP.
More than six years after it was outlawed, bonded labour remains rife in Nepal, where landless farmworkers known as "haliyas" (ploughmen) are born into slavery and passed on from one generation of landlords to the next. Many hoped for change when a newly-elected government led by former Maoist rebels freed them from bondage in September 2008, months after Nepal cast off a 240-year-old monarchy and became a republic. The Maoists had promised to end centuries of inequality and write a constitution that would transform a country where one out of four people survive on less than $1.25 a day. Successive administrations have pledged reparations for the haliyas, but no one has received any financial compensation and a long-promised programme of land ownership reform has yet to materialise. This has meant their lives have remained much as they were before being 'freed' - they are still reliant on landlords. Pariyar's calloused hands and chronic shoulder pain testify to a life spent pulling the plough. A sixth-generation bonded labourer, he started working when he was just 13, clocking 15-hour days in exchange for room and board.
"We are like the landlord's inherited property - my grandfather worked for them, then my father, now me," he said. In all those years, little has changed in his village, Thehe, home to segregated haliya settlements with no electricity or running water. Like Pariyar, most haliyas belong to the impoverished Dalit or "untouchable" Hindu community and are forbidden to work indoors, enter temples or even take water from taps used by upper-caste villagers and their animals.
As Pariyar dragged a plough across his landlord's hilly plot on a wintry morning, he said nothing would make him happier than to see the practice end. "But I can no longer imagine a day when I will be out of this prison," he said. "I don't even dream of it any more."
Although the ties connecting landlord and labourer are binding, they are rarely intimate. "They see us as untouchables, they don't interact with us, they only care if we come to work or not," said Nani Biswokarma, a 23-year-old haliya working in Baraunsi village in Nepal's remote north-west. The mother of two told AFP she worried "all the time" about her children's future. “We have no money, no house, no land, nothing - we can't afford to educate them," she said. "I want them to have better lives but I can't see how it will happen."
Parbat Sunar was one of a handful of haliya children able to attend school thanks to a bargain his family struck with their landlord. Even the classroom was not free from discrimination - he and other low-caste children were told to sit on the floor, not on school benches. "I felt very hurt and wondered why we were always on the floor. I used to feel tormented by it," said Sunar, who now heads a non-profit group fighting for haliya rights. "This country's laws were written solely for the benefit of the upper castes. All the land belonged to them, haliyas had no option, we had to agree to their terms to survive."
Laxman Kumar Hamal, a government official responsible for haliya resettlement, blamed a lack of money for the delay. "I know it's taken years, we are trying to resettle them but we have budget constraints and cannot purchase land for all of them in one go," Hamal explained. "We hope to resettle more haliyas in the months to come," Hamal said. Although the 2006 peace deal between the Maoists and the state underscored the need for a "scientific land reform programme...ending the feudalistic system of landholding", no political party has asked landlords to hand over land to haliyas. Sunar says just 80 of the 19,000 haliya families identified by the government had received land. "We had high expectations from lawmakers after their claims of building a new Nepal, but they have done nothing," he said.