A giant step out of poverty

Jun 22, 2017

Man Bahadur Bika has been able to distance himself both from the poverty and discrimination he faced in his home village with the advent of his metal workshop in Burtibang, Baglung--part of whose success he attributes to the support he received from the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre

When he was a child, Man Bahadur Bika would tag along with his father, Padam Bahadur Bika, to collect the wages for their work in the village of Adhikarichaur in Baglung, western Nepal. During the Dashain festival, his father would make rounds of his clients’ home, collecting roti (bread), raksi (liquor) and rice. It was a seasonal chore he looked forward to. But what he hated about it was discrimination from their upper-caste clients. “They would stay a few feet away from us, tossing the food into our plates. I used to feel bad about it and wonder why we were treated in such a manner,” he recalls.   

At the tender age of 13, Bika joined his father as an apprentice and learned the tricks of the trade. The large family, including four children, eked out a living from an exploitative labor system called Balighare Pratha. Under the outlawed system, Dalits served upper-caste households with their craftsmanship and received food grains (bali) in return for their work. Bika’s family served more than 100 households in Adhikarichaur, but all they received was 20 muri of rice (about 1,600 kilograms) every year. Clearly, the system was designed to benefit the rich rural landholders.

So, in 2000, at age 17 and two years into his marriage, Bika did what millions of Nepali youths have done to escape rural poverty: He applied for a construction job in Qatar. Eighteen months later, when he and his co-workers demonstrated demanding that their salary of 530 Qatari Riyals (approximately Rs.15,600) be hiked, he was sent to jail. He returned to Nepal after spending nine days behind bars in the Arabian Peninsula.

“I couldn’t save any money from my work in Qatar because I had to spend all of it to pay back the loans I’d taken,” he says.

Back home, however, there were hardly any better options for earning a living. So, despite the oppressive conditions he had endured in the Gulf, in 2005, he embarked on yet another stint as a migrant worker. This time it was Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where he got a job as a scaffolder. He worked there for nearly four years, earning Rs. 700,000. The savings helped him build a cement and concrete house in Adhikarichaur. In April 2013, he sold the house and moved to Burtibang, the second largest town in Baglung.

And, that’s where Bika, now a father of four children, not only found a footing, but was also able to upgrade his traditional work of producing metal and iron tools.

A short hike from Burtibang bazaar takes you to a three-storey building tucked away in the hillside covered with pine trees. From the balcony of his house, one can enjoy a panoramic view of Burtibang, located not far from the confluence of Nishi Dobhan and Bhuji Khola.

Here, inside a tin shed, beside a smoldering fire, Bika, a rotund man, sits on a mattress on the floor, toiling for 12-14 hours a day. His job is to mold, hammer and melt down iron and other metals to create tools that make people’s tasks easier.

His workshop—the Burtibang Aran Business Service—produces traditional weapons and tools such as khukuris, sickles, axes, spades and hammers, among others. It employs five people and supplies the tools to farmers in half a dozen surrounding villages and to households in Burtibang.

The onset of the monsoon is his busiest season, when farmers need the tools the most. He makes a monthly profit of about Rs. 50,000. For coal, which he uses to heat the iron and other metals, he spends Rs. 40,000 to 45,000.

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Ever since he moved to Burtibang, Bika’s business has flourished. He has modernized his workshop. He remembers a day 20 years back, when he and his family members had to protest against the owners of a hotel in Adhikarichaur. “While the upper caste people left their dishes after having food, we were ordered to clean them despite having paid the bills,” he recalls. “There was huge discrimination in the village. The hotel owner discontinued that practice only after our protest.”

His eldest daughter, Gita, 17, who passed the School Leaving Certificate exam this year, dreams of becoming a health assistant. The younger daughter, Kalpana, is 12 and a fifth grader. While his youngest son is just five, the other, 10-year-old Tanka Bahadur, has been enrolled at a local English-medium school. “I couldn’t study beyond eighth grade. My wife is illiterate. I want to make sure that my children are educated well,” says the 34-year-old.

Bika attributes some of his success to the support provided by the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC). He received financial support of Rs. 35,475 from the AEPC for the purchase of a stand drill machine. That’s in addition to other modern equipment he has acquired, such as a blower, a welding machine, grinder and cutting machine, which have helped him scale up production and increase efficiency.

“I want to buy more machines. I also want to hire more workers,” Bika says, over the sound of hammering and sharpening. He has already borrowed Rs. 800,000 rupees from a local bank, but wants to upgrade his workshop. Every month he pays between Rs. 4,000 and 5,000 in electricity tariffs to the 34-kilowatt, community-run Bhuji Khola micro hydropower plant.

Micro hydropower plants such as this have driven changes in rural Nepal, where subsistence farmers have been drawn to small and medium enterprises. These plants, which cater to off-grid communities, have been instrumental in supplying power to small businesses in rural regions. The program aims to empower marginalized and disadvantaged people, the groups that lack resources to reach out to public service providers.

Although most of the market for khukuri, the best-selling item in his production, is local, he has also sold a few in markets as far as Kathmandu. He has also travelled to the capital city twice to participate in exhibitions featuring cottage and small industries. He was awarded third prize for his product on his first visit three years ago. The last one, he says, proved more productive for he learned about managing and running a small business like his and was also able to interact with fellow businesspeople. 

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This is a far cry from the life he once led in poverty-stricken village where he faced exclusion and humiliation. He no longer has to worry about being paid lower wages than his upper-caste co-workers. Still in Burtibang, vestiges of the centuries old tradition remain. His daughter, Gita, shared an experience of a school outing a few years ago, when she and other Dalit students were separated from her higher-caste classmates. “We were told that being Dalits, we were not allowed to mingle with higher -aste students,” she recalled.

To every visitor to his workshop, Bika shows a giant khukuri, which is two meters long and weighs 35 kilograms. The visitors often pose standing close to the shining weapon, which stands taller than a person with average height.

It took him five days to make the weapon, and it is priced at Rs. 40,000. But Bika says he doesn’t want to sell it, but keep it as an emblem, a reminder, perhaps, of the giant steps he’s taken in life.

The AEPC, under the Ministry of Population and Environment, is supported by UNDP through the Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood (RERL) project--a joint undertaking of the Government of Nepal, UNDP and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). The programme seeks to increase equitable access to energy services, with a focus on enhancing rural livelihoods.

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