Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) calls for Government attention to Nepal’s Dalits, the Gandharva community in particular, who suffer from severe food insecurity and poverty.

An Open Letter from the Asian Human Rights Commission to the Prime Minister of Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai 

Dear Prime Minister:

During the month of the World Food Day (October 16) and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (October 17), the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) would like to bring your attention to Nepal’s Dalits, the Gandharva community in particular, who suffer from severe food insecurity and poverty.

More than half of Nepal’s population live below the poverty line, living on less than USD 1.25 a day, with Dalits being the most vulnerable among other social groups. About 40 percent of children under five years of age are underweight, and 40 percent of children under 16 are engaged in child labour. Structural inequality and caste based discrimination remains the biggest obstacle in achieving Dalits’ fundamental rights and eradicating the poverty they suffer from, despite some institutional efforts to this effect by the government.

As clearly mentioned in the government’s third periodic report on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) 2011, Nepal’s Constitution recognizes the right to health as a fundamental right, of which nutritious food is a major element. While acknowledging the food deficiency existing in hill and mountain areas, the government also admits that the access of Dalit communities to land is very low. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate food also, in his report A/65/281 before the sixty-fifth session of the General Assembly, emphasised the state obligation to improve or strengthen such access to land.

In your government report, 44 percent of Dalits in the plain area are landless, while 44.6 percent of them in hill areas are marginalised farmers owning less than 0.4 hectares of land. Among the Dalits, the AHRC discovered that the Gandharva community was particularly marginalised, as their vulnerable economic and social status has not been compensated by any government policy. They were originally a nomadic community, who sang and played musical instruments for their living.

In May 2011, the AHRC sent an appeal letter to the government authorities regarding the land dispute and violation faced by the Gandharva community living in Sorahawa Village Development Community (VDC) of Bardiya district. The land provided for their settlement by the Commission for the Landless Problem Solution does not produce sufficient food, lasting no more than three months. As a result, the Gandharvas need to migrate for food. In addition, no agricultural training was provided to them.

None of the Gandharvas (173 in total) have passed the School Leaving Certificate Examination that one can take after finishing class 10 (i.e. completing primary school). As their land does not yield sufficient agricultural produce, all the Gandharvas are engaged in seasonal migration work to India, or rickshaw driving.

Despite these circumstances being brought to the authorities’ attention, the AHRC observed their reluctance and failure to ensure the community’s food security and land access. Of the 42 households, 14 have temporary title to the land along with a registration receipt, whereas 28 households’ lands are registered in the official field book of the Commission for the Landless Problem Solution, Land Revenue Office. Only six households have a written certificate to prove their title to the land. Land registration records or registration receipts are considered proof of occupation, and the authorities should issue titles to all Gandharvas without further procedures. Nevertheless, both the land registration office and the VDC office are asking the Gandharvas to provide documents to prove their occupation upon the land, revealing their neglect and reluctance to assist this community.

Another Gandharva community living in Jhupra hamlet, Baluwater 1, Jarbutta Village Development Committee (VDC), Surket district is also facing human rights violations. We have sent an appeal letter to you asking for your intervention in September 2011, drawing your attention to the Gandharva women and children engaged in hard labour, and suffering from serious health problems, hunger and malnutrition. Also a landless nomadic community, they were given land by the administration for settlement near the riverside. The land does not meet their food needs however, and in fact is detrimental to the community’s health. No further efforts were made by the authorities to advance their food and health rights. As the path to reach their place of residence is steep and rocky, half an hour from the main road, and the river is flooded every year, the Gandharvas find it difficult to manage their daily life. The only source of income is to collect sand and stones from the riverside and sell them to the middleman, in which women and children are also engaged. However, one family of 5-8 members hardly earns 100 rupees (1.26 USD) a day through this hard labour. The community barely manages two meals a day, usually eating a mixture of wheat flour and water. This led to health problems during pregnancy, as well as the birth of babies with disabilities.

We found that some women and girls have uterine ailments due to a lack of basic health care during delivery and hard labour. The community is deprived of safe drinking water and other sanitation facilities, and the public health center and school is far away from their village, taking more than one hour on foot. The women are further burdened with obtaining clean water for cooking and drinking every day. One of the major causes of extreme poverty prevalent among this community in particular, and Dalit communities in general, is the government’s failure in providing access to stable income sources such as land or other natural resources. While the Gandharvas were provided some land for settlement, neither a sustainable income source nor basic facilities were granted to guarantee them a life with dignity. Providing the community with inappropriate land is at the origin of the serious issues faced by women and children.

We would like to remind you of the fact that the land redistribution to landless Dalits in Nepal aims to ensure their basic rights. For landless Dalits in rural areas, land is the foundation to living with dignity, and realizing other rights enshrined in the Interim Constitution such as the right to food, housing, and the rights of women and children. The lands given to these two Gandharva communities do not guarantee any of their rights. As a result, their children are malnourished, engaged in child labour instead of getting an education, they live far below the poverty line, and their women face many health problems. They will continue living in this vicious cycle of poverty if the government fails to take effective action to fulfil their rights.

The government of Nepal has ratified international human rights laws, and acknowledges its obligation to guarantee the food security and access to land to its citizens, Dalits in particular.

We remind you of this acknowledgment and responsibility, and urge you to take immediate steps to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of the Dalit community, including the Gandharva community. Should your government fail to make an appropriate and timely intervention to secure the rights of the women from the Gandharva community in line with internationally accepted laws and standards, we will be compelled to file an appeal before the CEDAW Committee, whose competence Nepal has acknowledged by ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Yours sincerely,

Wong Kai Shing

Executive Director

Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong


1. Ministry of Local Development

2. Ministry of Land Reforms

3. Ministry of Forest

** AHRC is an International Associate of IDSN