In Kunni Kharka, Nepal, a Dalit community is using collective savings and strengthening community bonds to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. Naresh Kumar Shreshtha reports. 

This is the fourteenth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Dalits, also known as the “Untouchables”, are subjected to caste-based discrimination in countries like Nepal and India. They are not allowed to partake in the religious and social life of the communities they belong to, and are confined to performing menial tasks such as animal slaughter and leather-work. In addition, they are denied access to public amenities and are deprived of basic economic opportunities, social justice and human dignity.

Kunni Kharka, a small village in Bethanchok Rural Municipality, located about 55 km south-east from Kathmandu in Nepal, is home to 14 Dalit families, who have been living there for decades. Most of the Dalits have very little or no land, and are mostly involved in an exploitative labour system called “Balighare Pratha”

In Balighare, the Dalits serve the upper-caste families with their craftsmanship and receive mostly food grains (bali) and sometimes cash in return for their service. The Baalighare Dalits include Damai (tailors and musicians), Sarki (shoe-makers) and Kami (blacksmith). They mostly receive food grains from upper-caste landlords once a year which are insufficient to survive upon. Hence, they also work as farmers to maintain their livelihoods.

While most of the Dalits are still part of the Balighare, a few of them migrated abroad in search of a better life. The majority of the migrants are not involved in traditional livelihood practices as mentioned above (Damai, Sarki, Kami), however some who belong to the Sarki community still continue to work in shoe factories.

Bishnu Maya Nepali is a 58-year old Dalit woman, who has been living in Kunni Kharka with her family for several years. She works as a tailor to help meet family expenses. She has been facing discrimination all her life, as she belongs to a Dalit community. “The entire Dalit community is socially and religiously excluded. We are not allowed to touch upper-caste people, but they wear clothes that are tailored by us”, Brishnu describes. 

First community response to COVID-19 outbreak

The community first heard about COVID-19 in early January, 2020  through radio and television. They have been distressed by various rumours and misinformation about the virus, such as, “if one person is infected by the virus, all the villagers will die”, “drinking hot water with turmeric will improve immunity”; “pray and worship, the Deity can save our lives”.

To break certain myths surrounding the virus, the local authorities initially broadcasted awareness messages through radio, television and caller-tunes (audio messages that callers hear when dialing a number, set to create awareness and disseminate vital information to the public). The community particularly found the caller-tunes very useful as means of access to crucial information during the pandemic.

To reduce the spread of the virus, the Bethanchok Rural Municipality has provided the community members with masks and sanitisers. The villagers are also trying to follow basic precautionary measures of maintaining social distance, wearing masks and washing their hands on a regular basis. Moreover, they are consuming indigenous immunity-boosting drinks made of local herbs and seeds.

Fortunately, there is no single positive case until now in Kunni Kharka, but the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have exacerbated existing crises in the Dalit community. The lockdown has negatively affected people’s livelihoods, placing them in an even more precarious situation than before. 

The village is quite far from both the capital city and also the local municipality:  representatives from the local municipality have to travel a great distance to distribute relief packages. Furthermore, the government closely monitors the relief provision and does not allow other organisations to distribute relief directly without their permission (known as One-door-policy). Until now, the villagers have only received the government’s provision of relief packages once, consisting of 15 kg of rice, 1 kg of salt and 1 kg of lentils. Evidently, this was not enough. “The fear of mass transmission of the virus prevents us from receiving adequate support”, Bishnu argues. 

Collective savings programme provides vital safety net

Realising the gravity of the situation, the community members reached out to their cooperative association, which is managed by the Dalits working on a collective savings approach. The cooperative was founded in 2005, with support from the Village Development Programme of the government, to create community savings.

The cooperative members meet every 15 days and collect money from each member. From the account, credits are provided to the members on a needs-based assessment, at lower interest rates. The recipients of the credits utilise the money for cattle rearing and poultry farming, among others. 

Prior to the establishment of the cooperative, the Dalits used to go to their affluent, upper-caste neighbours to borrow money and access food during crises. The landlords would provide loans at a high interest rate, which was challenging for Dalits to repay, which eventually led to a vicious cycle of debt.   

During these unprecedented times, the Dalits are again relying on the collective savings approach and credit options to feed their families. Although the collection of money was paused for a while during the initial days of lockdown, due to the various restrictions, it has now restarted, and members are once again able to access credits and utilise savings to sustain themselves. Some members are also availing credits to repay loans acquired from landlords, which were borrowed during the initial days of lockdown. 

The cooperative association was very helpful for the Dalits during the 2015 earthquake as well. In the past, they could also access support from different NGOs and the Village Development Committee. However, the recent pandemic has resulted in strict self-reliance, and social capital developed within the Dalit communities.

This crisis feels different for Dalit community

“The COVID-19 crisis is a novel experience. During the 2015 earthquake, we lost our family members and houses, but we did not have the fear that we are experiencing now. We feel it is very difficult for us to live without work and communication, as is the norm during the current crisis. People are afraid to talk or come near us even more than before. We heard about HIV, ebola and cholera but never experienced such a pandemic”, Bishnu shares.

Lack of income and food has been mentally stressful for the community members. But Bishnu and her community  are developing strong community cohesion and solidarity during this time of crisis.

“Our community is poor. We did not have enough resources to sustain ourselves during the lockdown period, but our unity is strong. Sharing what we have with others gives us encouragement and happiness”, adds Bishnu.

Even though community cohesion during times of crises creates a support system for its members, external support is still required to overcome the losses incurred during this period by the Dalits. The aforementioned one-door policy of the government hinders their access to relief and support from other sources. “If the government provides a guideline for the non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations (NGOs and CBOs) on the promotion of  community-based practices within communities such as ours, it would greatly help us to respond to the crisis”, Bishnu proposes. 

“This COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us how to survive during a crisis. It is important to be strong and positive in times of adversity, ask for help and also offer help to the most vulnerable,” she concludes.

Interviewer’s Perspective

The global pandemic affects everyone. However, it affects some more than others. The importance of collaboration between government and non-governmental institutions, such as NGOs and CBOs, to coordinate relief efforts through an organised approach can not be emphasised enough. 

To build long term resilience in the face of future crises, the local government may focus on sustainable support provisions targeting the poor, the landless and small land-holders. One method of implementing this could be by engaging the youth and returning-migrants in agriculture, by making barren public lands available for farming. Furthermore, provision of technical assistance, skill development training and small loans will be highly beneficial. Such initiatives will both ensure long-term solutions and create employment opportunities.


About the interviewer

Naresh Kumar Shrestha is the Project Coordinator at the National Campaign for Sustainable Development, Kavrepalanchok, Nepal. The organisation advocates for human rights, justice and sustainable development. Naresh has completed his Master’s in Regional Development Planning and Management.

About the interviewee

Bishnu Maya Nepali is a 58-year old married woman who is a tailor by profession. She has been living in the Dalit community of Kunni Kharka village for many years with her family. 

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