Casteised economy

Subhash Nepali

Bokre, which roughly translates to ‘bark’, is the childhood nickname that my neighbours gave me. I did not know why they nicknamed me bokre until I learned about the livelihood of my grandparents. My ancestors and, by tradition, my grandparents were leather-makers. They applied tanbarks and limestone to cure and tan animal hides. The traditional knowledge and craft regarding leather work was based on science and art which was passed down from generation to generation. Yet, the traditional skills of leather-makers, considered ritually ‘unclean’ on the basis of the caste system, continue to be devalued. Those belonging to leather worker caste are still stigmatised by society, whether or not they pursue their traditional occupation, and are subjected to inhuman treatment and violence. 

The Civil Code of 1854, which legitimised the caste-system as a part of the state governance and remained in operation until 1963, identified leather-makers as a part of the lower or untouchable caste. The demeaning social status given to leather-makers by the Civil Code has also caused unfair trade relations between leather-makers and the so-called higher caste customers. Leather-makers were also coerced by the state in addition to being socially shunned and exploited by their so-called higher caste customers. They were forced to supply animal hides to the state as a tax for leather making business, without receiving any service in return. Social norms and institutions as well as the country’s economic policies emerged adverse and coercive to leather-makers over the years, which ruined the market for traditional leather products. As a result, most leather-makers of my generation and the generation of my parents didn’t see a future in continuing their livelihoods/profession in this manner. 

The construction of the East-West Highway was aided by the Indian government in the 1960s, connecting Nepal to India. The newly connected road to India provided traditional leather-makers from my village and elsewhere in rural Nepal a way to escape the stigma and coercion by migrating to the Indian labour market, where they did not have to face caste-based discrimination. By the time I grew up to know more about the leather making business, neither my parents nor women and men of their generation were in the business, except one of my distant uncles. Yet, the state has not taken responsibility for the displacement of those leather-makers caused by coercive state’s policies and adverse social values.

Unfair practices

The leather-makers, who were continuing to collect and tan animal hides and produce leather, once again had to face the adverse policies and institutions. The People’s Republic of China supported Nepal to establish the state-owned factory named Bansbari Leather and Shoe Factory in the 1960s to modernise leather and shoe production. The managerial and decision-making berths were captured by the so-called higher caste people although they looked down on the traditional leather making community and their age-old occupation. Leather-makers were bound to supply a prescribed quota of animal hides to the factory, even when they made good deals elsewhere, in order to meet the demand of raw materials. Likewise, manual labourers in the factory were mostly from the caste groups of leather-makers while the so-called higher caste people, who served in higher position, were provided scholarship to study leather engineering and management in foreign countries.

As the foreign aided resources were exhausted, the factory was sold in 1992 and eventually closed in spite of the heightened demand for leather products in the domestic market. The managers and state-funded engineers captured the domestic market of leather products unchallenged. They had the monopoly over the technical know-how based on western leather-making technology as a result of their superior position in the Bansbari factory. They also had knowledge and experience about operating business in Nepal due to the caste-based nexus in state and non-state machineries. For example, they not only enjoyed the government subsidy to start business of leather products but also received grants from the international financial institutions that pushed for privatisation in Nepal. Last but not the least, they also benefitted from those skilled and unskilled leather workers who lost their job due to the closure of the factory, as they then had low-wage labourers in the market.

A new beginning, unlikely

With Bansbari Leather and Shoe Factory Limited sold and dismantled, the private sector penetrated the Nepali market for leather products. The country has eventually become self-reliant on leather products in the due course. At present leather work offers opportunities in domestic as well as international markets. Would the traditional leather-makers and their descendants, who made their living out of leather making, not be very happy with the growing business?

On the contrary, although leather business has turned into a lucrative sector, traditional leather-makers and their descendants make up the poorest section of society. Even today, they are despised for the stereotypes based on their occupation. There is also an erroneous thought that the leather workers themselves are to be blamed for their poverty; that it is their own incompetence and lack of commitment that have caused them to lag far behind the rest of society. Policy makers do not bother to ask whether the failure of the leather working communities in the business and their displacement from the market is due to the lack of technological and entrepreneurial skills or due to adverse social norms.

The case under scrutiny is self-explanatory if the readers have read between the lines. Economic growth cannot be shared among the citizens fairly unless the structural problems such as caste-based discrimination and policy level corruption are rectified. For example, the economic growth in the leather and shoe production sector has not been shared fairly with the traditional owners of the technology of leather making because they face adverse social norms, adverse economic policies and exclusionary as well as rent seeking institutions. The case of traditional leather-makers shows that continuing with business as usual will only lead us to an inequitable share of the much desired growth, with a widening gap between different socio-economic groups. Thus, the question is whether this government can play a significant role in addressing structural issues for shared growth. Or should the descendants of the leather-makers and other artisans wait until another change to receive empowering nicknames?


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