Sukadev Chaudhary was born and grew up in Uttarfalkapur, Dang district, Nepal. His family belonged to the Tharu, an indigenous community of the Tarai Region in the country. At 77, Chaudhary is struggling to claim his tenant rights over land that his family has been cultivating and taking care of as tenants. Poverty has become a part of Chaudhary’s life that when asked during an interview, he would hesitate to acknowledge that he had had an ‘easy’ life.
A few years back, Chaudhary and his family claimed 36 kattha (1 kattha = 0.034 hectare) of land under Nepal’s Land Act of 1964, which gave tenant farmers the right to own land. However, he still strives today for another four kattha of land, which is entitled to his family and ancestors. Chaudhary feels that the Nepali Land Reform and Revenue Department is unresponsive an indifferent to his predicament.
“We are the Adivasi (a term for indigenous peoples) of this area. This was our land since time immemorial until outsiders entered here,” said Chaudhary.
He remembered clearing the trees on that land together with his family and neighbours in order to accommodate their family’s needs and cultivate the land. He went on sharing the story, "In the early days, there was no restriction to clear the forest and settle down. There was plenty of land around here, so we need not worry about losing it. In the meantime, fundamental changes in the political system were taking place at the national and international level, of which our people were not aware of." Chaudhary was indicating the political fluctuation that happened between the ‘50s and the ‘80s.
During this period, the Tharus were extremely oppressed by the ruling class. They had to obey their landlords, which sometimes entailed toiling on the farm in long hours with very little pay. Landlords would take the entire crops that the Tharus had cultivated, leaving them to starve.
Chaudhary tells us that back then, the Tharu people had only two options – leave and face the unknown or stay and endure the torture. Many Tharus opted to embark on a journey, which eventually led them to the Naya Muluk, an area regained from the British India that had been previously annexed from Nepal.
Landlords who were then left behind by their labour realized the value of land for the Tharu people. They then pushed for policy recommendations to the former King Mahendra Shah, highlighting the importance of secure land rights for the Tharus. Chaudhary said this was how the Tenancy Rights Provision was first conceptualized and implemented as Law. However, this situation did not solve the Tharus’ plight.
After assessing villages and the land that the Tharus had inherited from their ancestors, the district-level government claimed that the Tharus never owned the land but only lived on it – therefore making them as tenants. Chaudhary felt extremely betrayed by the government’s decision and since then has been fighting for fair land redistribution.
After telling this story of loss, signs of aggression were clearly evident throughout his face. "I have been struggling to get my own land for long." He pushed for a fair share of tenant land but could not convince the landlords. Chaudhary then turned to activism, uniting fellow villagers, lobbying political leaders and visiting government offices in the hopes that he could register land in his name.
With support from the National Land Rights Forum (NLRF), a member of ILC Asia’s National Engagement Strategy (NES) Nepal, Chaudhary organised fellow tenant farmers and demanded landlords their right to the land they had been tilling on for years. This was the beginning of Chaudhary’s success story in claiming his land.
Currently he is determined to get the remaining four kattha of land located along the East-West Highway in the Terai region. He knows that this piece of land is not going to be easily obtained due to its increasing monetary value.
“My struggle as a tenant has made me realise that a person’s right to land cannot be simply obtained with provisions on paper. We have to fight to realise these rights. But no matter what changes in life I’ve experienced as a tenant farmer, I’m glad that I’m still able to secure my tenancy and that this fight has taught me not to stop until the end," said Chaudury as we concluded the discussion.