Governments come, governments go. Badis’ condition as bad as everRanked at the bottom even among Dalits, generations of Badi have endured extreme socio-economic marginalisation over the past century.
Namuna basti literally means a model settlement.
But there is nothing exemplary about Namuna basti in Ward-1, Tallo Dungeshwor of Dullu Municipality, Dailekh. Neither the systematically marginalised and oppressed lives of basti-dwellers nor their government-built houses on a slope of a hill which is susceptible to landslides inspire visitors or the residents nearby.
Not only are many houses in the basti close to collapsing, but those who live in those houses also have a similar fate.
This continues to be the reality for the Badi people, one of the most deprived and marginalised communities within Nepal’s caste system.
Ranked at the bottom even within the Dalit or the ‘untouchable’ caste, generations of Badi have endured extreme socio-economic marginlisation over the past century.
From being courteseans and entertainers during the Rana regime to having to resort to prostitution for livelihood, the Badi people, especially women, face discrimination and are denied fundamental citizen rights, which has resulted in extreme poverty in the community.
“Society tells us to earn our dues. They say we have hands and feet, so we should work and earn. I agree,” says Radha Badi, 35, a resident of Namuna basti. “But where do we go and work? Where do we go and earn? Nobody wants to hire us. We have no skills, no education.”
There are 35 closely packed housing units in Namuna basti with approximately 20 families, of which some 15 families have migrated to India in search of better wages.
The rest work as manual labourers, crush stones or hunt fish in the Karnali river. Many are forced to beg while the children sing songs and entertain travellers in hopes of earning a few bucks.
The Nepal government, after decades of protests and resistance, built the Namuna basti for the Badi community. However, for the community, getting a house isn’t enough to address their problems.
“We thought having a house to live in would solve our problems but even if we live in a mud-house today, an upgrade from the tarpaulin sheds, we still need to eat,” says Madana Badi. “Give us land so that we can feed ourselves.”
According to the National Census conducted in 2011, there are 38,603 Badis living across the country. The number is less than one percent of Nepal’s total population.
Around 43 percent of Badi people do not have land of their own while many of the remaining 57 percent live on public land. Around 75 percent of the Badi people can barely manage food for themselves.
On January 7, 2009, the Pushpa Kamal Dahal administration, following organised resistance from the Badi community, promised them land and training to develop income-generating skills as a means to rehabilitate the Badi community.
The objective was to end the scourge of poverty among the Badis, which wasn’t honoured until March 2021 amid the pandemic when some 400 people of the Badi community from Surkhet, Dailekh, Kalikot and Jajarkot districts staged a 16-day sit-in in Surkhet demanding land plots.
A year later, after the signing of a five-point agreement with the provincial government at the Chief Minister’s Office in Birendranagar, members of the Badi community still don't have access to the land plots.
The agreement was signed by Rajendra Mishra, secretary at the Ministry of Land Management, and Hikmat Badi, coordinator of the Badi Struggle Committee.
It aimed to coordinate with the federal government to allot arable land plots for agriculture to the Badi people and provide grants up to Rs1 million for skill development and income-generating businesses. But the progress has been precious little.
“Everything has been limited to papers. You can see we have no land even after a year of protest,” says Hira Badi, a protester in the sit-in. “The province fooled us. They just wanted to send us back home so they said they would heed to our demands.”
Badi community leaders say that despite multiple attempts to draw the attention of their local authorities, after the Surkhet sit-in, the authorities have turned a deaf ear to them and even denied having any documents about the agreement.
Such dismissive behaviour of the local and provincial leaders to issues that can make or break the Badis is a pattern of political negligence and divisive politics, say land rights activists who believe that the governments’ negligence towards issues such as land rights is because of the lack of political ownership.
The KP Sharma Oli administration, like previous administrations, had formed a Commission on Resolving Land Related Problems to address the issue of landlessness. But it was short-lived.
The Sher Bahadur Deuba government quickly dissolved the old commission and formed a new Landless Squatters and Problem Resolution Commission. It is the 14th such commission formed to distribute land to the landless since the restoration of democracy.
“The newly formed commission had to again start from scratch. Sixteen months of hard work by the old commission went in vain. In all this, the demands of the landless are again pushed aside,” explains Saraswati Subba, chair of the National Land Rights Forum.
“The second commission could have easily continued the work started by the previous commission. But that doesn’t happen here because there is a lack of ownership on issues such as landlessness among the political leaders.”
Badi rights activists, meanwhile, say their plights remain ignored and they continue to be oppressed by all tiers of government that exploit landlessness as an endless game. The local government outright denies them rights, the provincial administration pretends to listen and the federal level is inaccessible, according to them.
Badi members who work at the local level share that ward leaders refuse to listen to their demands. From internal meetings to budget allocation, the economic development of the Badi community faces constant sidelining and belittling.
“Whenever I propose anything related to the Badi community’s upliftment, it is always sidelined. They pay no heed to our issues,” says Bhumi Badi, a Dalit member of Ward 5 in Dullu Municipality.
Such is the systemic denial of the economic upliftment of the community, according to Bhumi, who wants to stand in the upcoming elections again.
After decades of political struggle, many Badi members had desperately hoped for education to be a recourse. They hoped to find an alternative to an arable agricultural land as a means to satisfy their hunger.
Unfortunately, Badi youths face a plethora of challenges in accessing any economic opportunities because of their historically disadvantaged background, including those with accredited certificates.
Both Sanjay Badi, 26, and Arjun Badi, 25, had completed their grade ten examinations and undergone Council For Technical Education and Vocational Training (CTEVT) diploma three-year mechanical engineering programmes through a scholarship for Dalit students.
However, after completing their courses, they could neither get access to job opportunities in their village nor afford to start their own businesses.
“We have a lot of passion. We know we can work but we don’t have access to jobs. And we don’t have funds to establish our own business,” says Arjun, who then migrated to a Middle Eastern country in hopes of finding a way out of poverty.
Having taken loans to travel to the Middle East, both Arjun and Sanjay say all their income was spent on repaying the loans. On return, they found themselves in the same position as before—broke.
Despite the educational backgrounds of Badi youth, nepotism at work places, lack of financial access, and generations of caste-based discrimination keep them from earning a living, limiting the food they can afford.
Back in Namuna basti, a five-minute walk descends to an unpaved dirt track which separates Dullu Urban Municipality from Gurans Rural Municipality.
In the afternoon, many Badi families wander around the junction hoping to find a job or two that will feed them for the night.
“Our children don’t even know what ‘lunch’ is. We are desperately struggling each day to put two meals on our plates,” says 50-year-old Devisara Badi. “Don’t we and our children deserve to eat?”