Sanumaya lives with her five children and frailing mother-in-law in a rural village in Nepal. Her husband, Gopal has left for United Arab Emirates as a labor migrant. Last year, the hybrid seeds sold in the local market had led to crop failure, bringing the family to near bankruptcy. To save his family from destitution, Gopal borrowed money from the local businessman and set off overseas. In the meantime, Sanumaya joined a local women’s savings and credit group, from where she takes out loan money to do animal husbandry. The meager income Sanumaya earns from her business is barely enough to sustain the family. Gopal has not sent home any money yet. He’s probably saving it to repay the local businessman. Fortunately, the ancestral home that Sanumaya and Gopal inherited has a lush backyard, where Sanumaya grows vegetables and lets her goats roam about freely. She hopes to sell the goats someday and make some money.
A few weeks ago, when Sanumaya had gone to the weekly market to sell vegetables, her eldest daughter had witnessed some strange activities taking place in the house. The daughter reported that some men, who looked like they were from out of town, were taking measurements of the house and the backyard. Sanumaya reported the incident to her savings group and found out that the village was building a road that would connect to a major highway. The women told Sanumaya that they heard from their men that the value of the house would go up if the road passed by their homes. Sanumaya was excited about the prospect.
A few weeks passed by and nothing happened. Then, suddenly, Sanumaya was confronted with a bulldozer that was chopping away the trees and crushing the vegetables in the backyard. Upon inquiry, Sanumaya found out that a portion of her backyard was going to be absorbed into the road. And the road was not a village road but a major highway that divided her house from the rest of the village. On the other side would be her weekly market, her son’s school, the health post and the homes of majority of her friends and family, including members of her savings and credit groups. But Sanumaya’s immediate concern was her backyard, where she grew vegetables and sheltered her goats and where her children roamed around and played carefree. Then she panicked, thinking about the safety of her children and the safety of her home and her status as a single mother. Sanumaya tried to stop the men. But the men told her that they had an order issued from the local government office and that she needed to go to the office itself if she had any complaints.
It turned out that the local government had done its duty and notified the public about the project. They had followed all the procedures. They had put up the notification in their public announcement bill-board and on the internet. They had printed the notification in the local newspaper and they had held public hearings with affected households. The notification included the listing of names of affected households and procedures to follow to apply for compensation for lost or damaged property. Furthermore, a survey had taken place in the village, which included an account of every household that was being affected. Sadly, none of this is even vaguely familiar to Sanumaya. Sanumaya is illiterate. She lives miles away from the local office where; even if she had heard about the public hearing, she would not have been able to attend. She has young children at home. When the survey team had come, they looked for Sanumaya’s husband, who was officially listed as the legal owner of the house. And when the village meeting had taken place, Sanumaya was out selling her goats and vegetables. She could not afford to forgo her earnings just to attend the village meeting that she did not know what it was about. Besides, village meetings are always dominated by men and women did not have a chance to voice their opinions.
The procedures for claiming the compensation package proved to be arduous. First of all, Sanumaya being illiterate did not have information or the ability to fill out the forms. Secondly, the property is under her husband’s name and legally, Sanumaya is not eligible to receive compensation. She does not even have proper documents to register her claims. She does not have a citizenship card or birth certificate. Thirdly, she is a single woman from a low-caste household. The ‘upper-caste’ all-men civil servants who are handling her case are condescending. She is not getting the proper attention she deserves. Sanumaya often passed by a group of protesters outside the local office that she came to know. But she did not dare join them because of the risk of violent eruption and police man-handling.
This story is a fictional account of the every day reality I have witnessed among poor and vulnerable people during my field work. In resettlement policies and projects, my specific job entailed highlighting these issues in the vulnerable communities development plan (VCDP). But this blog entry was inspired by a similar story in Sri Lanka that was shared by Lalanath de Silva , the head of the Access Initiative project for the World Resource Institute (WRI). In my next blog, I will summarize key findings from the WRI research work, which examines the impediments the poor and vulnerable face in exercising access rights and provides recommendations regarding how to overcome the obstacles.
Photo Credit: dwagle  (Flikr User)
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