A novel rural project helps to break social barriers
November 2005; As he sips tea with fellow villagers in a roadside tea stall, Thule Biswokarma wonders how times have changed. There were times when he had to stand outside the hop to get a glass of tea. As he puts the finished glass on the table, he also recalls how he had to wash the glass himself.
For years, the blacksmith, or kaami, from the Saathighar village of Kavre districts had been doomed to live a life no one in the civilized world would cherish. Considered to have hailed from a low-caste "dalit" community, Thule was an outcast in the village.
He would make pots, pans, khukuri, knives and the likes. The people from upper caste would use them but these same people would keep a distance from Thule. He would not be allowed to enter their homes. When health workers came to immunize the children, the villagers would ask them to finish with their children first. People would hesitate to talk to him and share the same table in the tea-stall. He would frowned upon and insulted. He was an "untouchable".
But now things have been changed. The transformation started taking place five years ago when the Village Development Programme (VDP) came to his village. The Participatory District Development Programme (PDDP) initiated the VDP in 1996 as one of the key components directly associated with building a sustainable institutional foundation toward poverty alleviation initiatives at the grassroots.
The PDDP takes VDP as a primary channel of implementation for participatory and sustainable local governance and development programs. The PDDP works in 30 districts and the VDP is being implemented in 334 VDCs, a affecting the lives of 218,272 villagers. As a people-centered program, the VDPs main thrust is improving livelihoods at the household level for alleviating poverty. It uses social mobilization as a tool for inspiring the local people to form their own community organizations, to promote their development through their own and other resources, and to actively participate in decision-making process for improving their lives and their surroundings. The VDP's approach is to encourage participation of men and women in decision-making processes as well as to enhance their voices and choices through their own organization at the grassroots.
Within a shorts span of time, the VDP has had dramatic results not only in the overall improvement in the life of the villagers but by breaking in the caste barriers as well. Says Thule: "We have become acceptable to society. Our children go to school with the other children. They do not have to listen to taunts. People welcome us in their homes."
The change has boosted the self-confidence of Thule. When the pots and pans he had made did not find a good market, Thule was disheartened - but not for long. He decided to switch to vegetable farming, and started cultivating tomato in the land stretching over three ropanis. He instantly made a Rs. 40,000 profit- something he had never imagined. His lifestyle has undergone a drastic change - socially, economically and personally.
The change in Thule Biswokarma's life is quite visible. He has constructed a new toilet in his house thanks to the initiative by his community organization. He has some money - enough to avoid the embarrassment and insult he used to face running from door to door of the upper cast people. He has gained enough confidence to talk to the same people whose face he hardly had the courage to look at.
"I am very happy with the turn of events," says Thule. He owes his happiness to the VDP. It has given villagers like Thule the freedom to implement local programs and projects by themselves. The villagers are mobilized from groups irrespective of caste and ethnicity. And the groups initiate programs for themselves.
As the government embarks on improving the status of so-called low-castes, also known as the dalits, this could be a model worth emulating. The recently formed National Commission for the Dalits could well take a leaf out of the Saathighar Village Program to change the fortune of the Nepalese dalits, who account for a fifth of Nepal's 23 million people.