Chepang is a highly marginalized and poverty-stricken indigenous community. Most people belonging to this community live in the hills of Makawanpur district, where their houses are often destroyed by landslides.
Two decades ago, some Chepang families of Makawanpur descended to the Madi valley of Chitwan district after their houses were destroyed by a massive landslide. They could not afford to buy private land, so they built thatched huts in Kusum Khola area of Chitwan National Park (CNP).
The CNP officials had been warning those Chepang families to go away from the conservation area, but they had nowhere else to go. On a recent rain-soaked morning, the CNP officials chased them away by setting fire to their thatched houses.
Indigenous Voice caught up with Jitendra Chepang, President of Chepang Association, to shed light on this issue.
Q. What is your reaction to the CNP officials' act of setting fire to Chepang people's houses in Kusumkhola area of Madi municipality.
Jitendra Chepang: Our association has been exerting pressure on the State to provide land for Chepang people, where they can grow enough food for their families. But the State has always turned a blind eye to our problem of landlessness. We have repeatedly told many governments: relocate Chepang people to some cultivable land where they can settle permanently, or at least provide them with land ownership certificate in the same area where they have been living without legal documents. Instead of addressing our problem of landlessness, the CNP officials burnt down the houses of some Chepang families. We strongly condemn this act.
Instead of addressing our problem of landlessness, the CNP officials burnt down the houses of some Chepang families. We strongly condemn this act.
Q. What do you want to tell the CNP authorities?
Jitendra Chepang: We demand that the displaced Chepang families of Kusum Khola be compensated and rehabilitated immediately. We also ask the government to provide long-term solutions to Chepang community's problem of landlessness. We may not be able to hold a meeting right away due to the Covid-19 situation, but we are ready to go to any extent to get justice.
Q. The CNP has stated that Chepang people's houses had to be destroyed because they had encroached upon government land. What is your take on it?
Jitendra Chepang: We are also the citizens of this country. We have rights to live in this country. We do not have private land to build houses. We do not have money to buy private land, either. So, where do we go? If the government has problem with us living inside a protected area, it should better show us where we can build our huts. But the Government has never told us where we can go, so we have been wandering. This is an injustice, we do not accept it.
Q: Why do you think the CNP set fire to Chepang people's houses at a time when they were already struggling for livelihood because of the Covid-19 pandemic and monsoon rains?
Jitendra Chepang: The CNP burnt down Chepang people's houses because they are a helpless marginalized community. They are a soft target. They are poor and voiceless.