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Nepal's dalits get a brand new life

Sep 28, 2009

Dalit community in Nepal was particularly susceptible to various kinds of diseases because their houses did not have stoves and toilets. All that is now changing with the untiring effort from a Member of Parliament, who also happens to be a gay, writes Sudeshna Sarkar.

Kathmandu: As a young boy, living in a remote village in faraway western Nepal, Sunil Pant remembers how his eyes used to always burn and how his chest used to hurt because of a dry, hacking cough that he and his five siblings suffered from. In fact, this cough developed into tuberculosis in younger sister, Kalpana.

Pant, the son of a schoolteacher, was luckier than the others in Gaikhor village – he lived in a mansion that stuck out in an impoverished land that had no running water, roads or electricity. But he, his family members and those living in shanties built of mud and tin, suffered from a common affliction. None of the kitchens in the village had user-friendly, fuel-efficient stoves or cooking.

"Most houses used chullahs – primitive hearths built of mud – while the poorest would simply put three bricks together and place the cooking pot on top of them," says Pant, now 36, and well-known in Nepal as the nascent republic's first openly gay member of parliament.

"Since most houses comprise one single room that serves as the bedroom, living space and kitchen, and ventilation is poor, they end up being filled with smoke, causing severe health problems."

According to the World Health Organisation, every year 1.6 million people die due to indoor air pollution. Most of them are women and children, as they spend the most time indoors. The constant inhaling of smoke leads to chronic pulmonary diseases like bronchitis, asthma and emphysema.

Even something as simple as a faulty stove can create huge health, environmental and social problems in a developing country like Nepal, where 80% of the people live in villages and are too poor to use cooking gas or kerosene in their kitchens.

The majority uses wood from the forests, resulting in the large-scale denudation of forest cover. Since the women also work as hired hands in fields, children have the task of collecting firewood, which means that they never get to go to school, perpetuating in the process a cycle of illiteracy in the villages.

Gaikhor, a village with a population of about 6,500 people, lies in Nepal's hilly Gorkha district. The Shahs who had ruled Nepal for nearly three centuries came from this region; so does Dr Baburam Bhattarai, former finance minister and a top leader of the Maoist party that had waged a successful 10-year war for the abolition of the monarchy.

The dalits

But despite the powerful people who came from the district, Gaikhor has remained neglected. The situation is most appalling in Jaishithok, the area in the village where 60 dalit families live. The dalits – literally meaning downtrodden – stand at the bottom of Nepal's rigid social hierarchy.

Although the government has officially banned untouchability, dalits are not allowed to enter non-dalit households or even draw water from the same wells in many parts of the country.

The dalit community is particularly susceptible to diseases of various kinds, largely because their houses do not have toilets.

Villagers use the forest, fields or rivers to defaecate, triggering epidemics, especially during the rainy season. Besides diarrhoea, other water-borne diseases like dysentery, typhoid and worm infestation are common.

But Jaishithok has recently undergone a sea change. A change that was ushered in after the election in April, which saw Pant, the founder of the gay rights movement in Nepal, nominated to parliament.

Each of the 601 MPs was allotted one million Nepali Rupees (about $13,000) to undertake development work in their constituencies.

Pant chose the dalit settlement. "With part of the money, we gave each of the 60 dalit families an improved stove as well as a toilet," Pant says.

"The stoves are connected to a chimney that releases the smoke outside the home. They also consume about one-third of the firewood required earlier. So the women and children now have more time. But, most importantly, gone are the smoke-filled homes and the diseases they caused."

The 'Miserable to Sustainable' 

The 'Miserable to Sustainable' project initiated by Pant also gifted a toilet to each house. While the villagers provided the labour to build them, the fund gave them the construction material they needed, including a tin roof and a water-efficient toilet that uses only a third of the water used in other toilets.

"We lived like animals before," says an overjoyed Ram Maya Nepali, a mother of three. "Now we are human beings. We cook like the others and we use a toilet like the others."

Though Ram Maya is in her mid-30s, she looks far older than her years because of years of malnutrition and backbreaking labour. Her husband, like most able-bodied men in the village, periodically goes to India across the open border to work as a labourer.

He spends the money he earns on hooch and Ram Maya has to bring up her children and support her mother-in-law by working as a hired help in other farmers' fields.

With the time that has been saved thanks to the new stove, Ram Maya now plans to grow vegetables in her backyard and sell them in the market for some extra income.

Madhumaya Ale, 45, is also the bread earner of her family. Her husband considers himself a village politician and spends his day at the village square discussing the state of the country with passersby.

Madhumaya ekes out a living for both of them by rearing cows and cutting grass. Since the couple has no children, the other villagers chipped in with voluntary labour to build the stove and toilet for them.

"They are heaven-sent," says Madhumaya, who suffers from chronic eye problems. "The best part is that now my eyes don't sting."

Huge satisfaction

Pant is satisfied as well. "It's amazing to see how much can be achieved with so little," he says. He still has half his share of funds left. Now the women of Jaishithok are demanding a third gift: A primary school.

Though Gaikhor has a school - the Laxmi Secondary School where Pant himself studied as a child - it is about two hours away from Jaishthok.

"It means Dalit children can't attempt to go to school till they are old enough to walk for two hours," Pant explains.

"By that time, they are too old for primary classes and are bullied by the other students if they eventually join. But if there is a school nearby, the nearly 20-30 children in the area can have primary education at least."

With the remaining money and further assistance from the government and donors, Pant is now planning a six-room primary school with five teachers. And that's just the beginning.

Also in the pipeline are roads, farming know-how and training for women so that they can plant different crops to suit the changing climate patterns, and develop enterprises to effectively market their products.

That's not all. Pant is urging all the remaining 600 MPs to spend 20% of their development funds on projects for village women. Says he: "I tell them, I know the problems in my village. You too know those of yours. For a tiny sum of money, you can address some of them and achieve a miracle."

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