3rd Quarterly, 2006 No.141

The Fifth Session of the Project Concerning Discrimination Based on Work and Descent

On April 23, 2006, the fifth session of the Project of the BLHRRI was held. Here is a summary of the presentations.

Discrimination based on Work and Descent in Nepal

Akio Kirimura, Nara Sangyo University

Professor Kirimura gave a presentation starting with an analysis of demographics and the national census, and then an overview of the caste system from a historical viewpoint. He continued by discussing how various aspects of caste-based discrimination have been revealed in the light of recent political developments.

Nepal’s population consists of caste groups including Bahun, Chhetri and Kami, and ethnic groups such as Gurung and Magar. According to the 2001 national census, Nepal had population of 23.15 million people, which is believed to have since increased to 27 million. Dalits in Nepal account for 13% of the population based on official statistics. Other estimates range from 15% to 25%. Examining the issue from a historical viewpoint reveals that the caste system in Nepal developed in three regions. Mukli Ain, the national code enacted by the King in 1854, integrated ethnic groups into the caste groups. The present hierarchical social strata developed from this blueprint. Today, Dalits have only a small presence in politics, administration, education and civil society. Armed conflicts between the government and Maoists have led to frequent use of tactics such as executions and torture as means to send warnings to others, and sexual abuses of women, by both sides of the conflict. Discrimination against Dalits and ethnic groups has intensified with the political turmoil. The presentation cut to the heart of the Nepal’s caste-based discrimination both in political, social, economic and other macro aspects, and in micro aspects such as health, employment, slavery, education and gender. Several concrete examples were cited including the fact that Dalits are not allowed to own land, that Dalits have to wash tea cups after using them at canteens, the situation faced by a group of women called Batty who engage in prostitution, and no citizenship allowed to fatherless children.

Discrimination based on Work and Descent in Bangladesh

Michihiko Noguchi, Osaka City University

Professor Noguchi gave a presentation about caste issues in Bangladesh, especially regarding those who engage in cleaning jobs, based on results of his field survey. He then discussed efforts made by cleaning workers against the discrimination from which they suffer.

In Bangladesh, a political transition recently took place from the former Awami League government to the coalition government formed by the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, which are strong supporters of Islam. The presentation focused particularly on sweepers in Chittagong, the second largest city after Dhaka, during the political transition period. In Bangladesh, the majority of people are Muslim, with Hindus making up 11% of the population. The caste system hierarchy in Bangladesh descends in order from Brahman, Kaeste and Nomoshudra, down to the oppressed castes, in similar strata to that of India. Those who engage in sweeping are originally from the Kampur region of Utter Pradesh and call themselves “harijan.” In Chittagong, there are four sweeper colonies. On a daily basis they face exclusion from schools, segregation in housing, discrimination in employment, not allowed to be seating at the same table of non-Dalits at meals, and are excluded from Hindu temples.

However, sweepers who are employed by the city authorities lead a relatively stable life in terms of income, and their positions as city employees are coveted by other people in a country in which the GDP per capita is US$268 and 47.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. People who are not from the sweeper caste are therefore starting to enter into the same occupation, which until now has been monopolized by harijan. This situation is very different to that in India so requires further investigation. Sweepers have been unhappy with this situation and have submitted a number of demands to the city authorities. The main problem is unemployment. In 2002, 646 of the 1,856 sweeping positions in the city authorities were occupied by Muslims. 722 positions were on a permanent basis and 1,134 were seasonal. The number of permanent jobs is decreasing every year as they are replaced by seasonal positions. This has resulted in an increase of unemployment among the sweeper caste. Also, the houses built by the city authorities are aging. This is accompanied by problems of overcrowding and housing shortages together with the insufficient provision of common water taps and lavatories. In the past, harijan were guaranteed work and housing when they migrated from India to Bangladesh. Now, however, they are evicted from their housing when they retire.

There are positive indications among the sweeper caste that point towards a liberation movement. In 1998, four associations of sweepers were combined into a single association under the name of the “Bangladesh Harijan Council” with the aim to organize the 1.5 million harijan throughout the country. The Council has 54 local branches and has begun a campaign calling for the improvement of living conditions and advocacy.

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