Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Change makers of the Tarai

By Shreya Thapa
Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post

Imagine a massive celebration; picture your whole family, your whole village coming together. Try to fathom what Dashain, New Year and every major festival merged into one would be like and only then will you understand Maghi. Celebrated on Magh 1(mid-Jan), Maghi isn’t a big deal in the Tharu community just because it’s the largest festival; it is also the time when decisions and plans for the upcoming year are made—decisions like choosing who the Badaghar, village head, will be.

“The whole village sits together and the previous Badaghar asks for leave and resigns. Then each person voices their wants and demands for the upcoming year. After choosing which appeals will be put into effect, the village makes a plan for the next year. When goals are made and a plan is set, only then is the Badaghar chosen,” explains Tihar Bahadur Tharu. This village meeting has been held in the courtyard of his house for over 15 years as Tihar has been elected and re-elected to be the Badaghar of Balapur in Bardiya. As the Badaghar, Tihar is then responsible for carrying out the village’s plans and ensuring changes are made in that year.

“We make plans for one year, but in the back of our minds we also have to think a little longer,” says Ram Lal Tharu who is the Badaghar in his village of Maghragari, Bardiya. But if a good Badaghar is found, he is not let go of very easily. “I’ve been the Badaghar for over 10 years, recently I’ve been saying I don’t want to do this anymore, that I am no longer capable, and that I am tired—but the village doesn’t listen,” he says with a resigned laugh.

And given how much responsibility Badaghars shoulder, it is no surprise that they tire. “For every decision that is made, the Badaghar is included,” says Laxmi Ram Tharu, who has also been the Badaghar of Dhampur, Bardiya, for around 10 years. He smiles, “There are things that you can’t even think of that we have to do.”

Responsibilities as the village head naturally entails being part of the committee that establishes the village laws. “These laws are more important than the national laws,” Tihar says, “If we declare that for one year there are to be no laathi charges then it will be followed.”

But the Badaghar isn’t limited to the higher level official work, he is included in virtually every decision, “The bigger things are there, but we are also consulted about things like giving goats and buffalos injections,” Laxmi says. As the Badaghar, Ram is currently most concerned about building a bridge that is the point of connection between his village and just about everything else. “We have a wooden bridge now but it’s in terrible condition; when that goes, I don’t know what we’ll do. Right now I worry about how to get a bride.” The worries Badaghars have to tend to even go as far as settling disputes between villagers. “We find out what the cause is, we try to see things from both sides, and then we offer a solution to those fighting,” Tihar says and adds, “But whether they listen to us or not is up to them.”

Given the prestige and power that comes with being a Badaghar, it is surprising that what they say is in no way final, “We make suggestions and recommendations but then the people are allowed to choose if they want to listen or not—if we forced it on them then it wouldn’t be any different from the Rana period,” Ram says. Instead, everything is extensively discussed until the best possible solution is found.

Perhaps this system of the Badaghar being responsible to the people he is responsible for is what makes it a success. During their time as Badaghars, with the help of various NGOs and INGOs, they have worked within their community to help remove the Kamlari system when young girls are used as indentured labourers; new educational facilities have been built nearby; roads have been built; more homes have toilets now—Ram is especially proud of having collaborated with Red Cross and being the first to build toilets in just about all of the 431 houses in his village.

What is incredible is that these men are not educated—on top of being Badaghars they are farmers, and they receive no compensation for the services they provide to their villages. In the annual meeting that all Badaghars of the region attend, they recently discussed providing a small stipend for Badaghars but where that goes remains to be seen. In the mean time, their devotion to their communities and their advocacy for positive change continues.

“Because I didn’t get to study myself, that’s the one thing I advocate the most for. I encourage everyone to study; education is the biggest wealth. After someone is educated they can stand up on their own feet—this is what I tell everyone,” Laxmi says. Ram adds to Laxmi’s cause, “If people aren’t educated, sometimes it is difficult to work with them, but if they’ve been schooled, they understand better and it makes our work easier.”

Despite the lack of education, the progressive thinking these men hold should be applauded. “I set up something so that women, even the older ones, can learn to read and write,” Ram says and Laxmi goes as far as saying, “I think we need women Badaghars. We ask them to come forward, we say we’ll help them learn—we’ll help them with work, we’ll help them with money or going to different places. We need to move forward, we need to get women involved—keeping them shut in the room won’t do, we need to enforce the attitude that women should and can be in bigger positions.”

Their ideas to promote women and youth is especially impressive for a country where older men have long been in charge, but these Badagars modestly attribute their way of thinking to experience, “It’s all about experience; it’s through experience that we’ve been able to come this far. For me, it definitely wasn’t education,” Laxmi laughs and adds, “You learn as you go, you teach things you know to others, and you learn things you don’t know.”

Listening to them, it’s no surprise that their villages are unwilling to let these men step down. Given how fruitful this truly democratic system has been, it’s unlikely that the tradition—which exists where Chaudhary families live in Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur, and Dang—will fade anytime soon. As it stands, the community still needs them, in Laxmi’s words, “The villages will always need something—only time can tell what the need of the next generation will be.”

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