Text by Anil Chitrakar

Arable land is and has always been critical to all political debate in Nepali society. Every political movement and promises made to people as a way to get their support seems to center around this scarce commodity. What is perhaps more interesting are all the different ways land has been managed in our history.  Kipat is a system of land tenure which is based on communal land ownership and originated in the eastern hills and also practiced in some western hills of Nepal. Kathmandu valley also had some Kipat land in the past. The Kirant communities of the eastern hills of Nepal have retained the proud heritage of the Kipat land management system.

Dr. Mahesh Chandra Regmi, Nepal’s award winning economic historian is a great source to help us understand what he called “state land-lordship” which many in Nepal attribute to the current prevailing poverty, exploitation of the people who till the lands and hence the fluid political state of affairs. It is therefore worth understanding our land tenure history if we are to attain permanent peace through the upcoming constituent assembly process. We can be certain that land, its ownership and distribution will be a central issue in the months ahead.

In the process of unifying Nepal in the eighteenth century, King Prithvi Narayan Shah used land, its tenure and taxation, directly or through intermediaries, to pay for his conquest. When it came to annexing the eastern hills of Nepal into the Gorkhali kingdom he did not resort to military means but rather made a deal. According to Dr. Regmi, the Kirants of east Nepal were able to retain control of their communal land “within a broad framework of local autonomy which was a condition of their incorporation into the Gorkhali empire during the mid 1770s”. It is this autonomy that people are demanding again in a new “federal” Nepal. As part of this arrangement, Kirants were prevented from joining the Nepali army till 1847 when Prime Minister Jung Bahadur made the exception to the rule.

Kipat is a communal land tenure system in which land belonged to the local community under “customary law” and not to the state like in the rest of Nepal. The land was however, divided into smaller individual plots for cultivation. The individual had the right over use but did not actually own it. By its very nature, the person or family could not dispose of the land because it belonged to the community as a whole. The central government also could not impose taxes on Kipat land. The state, unlike in other parts of Nepal, could not reallocate the land to pay the military or administration personnel. It was the community head man who made the land allocation and not the Nepali state.

In the Kipat tenure system, equity was ensured by determining the amount of land for each family based on the community’s assessment of how much each family needed. When a family failed to utilize their land, the excess was given back to community ownership. It was then re-assigned to a family who needed it. Thus land never remained fallow.

As time went by, the arrangement with the Kirants began to get diluted. Initially the state began to allocate land belonging to Kirants who migrated to other parts of Nepal or out of Nepal and gave such land to people of other ethnic groups as a way to penetrate the system. Dr. Regmi tells us that while there was initial resistance, acceptance grew with growing labour shortage in the eastern hills.

Subsequently during the Rana regime and later, Kipat lands were increasingly brought under state control, taxed, ceilings set and reallocated. Dr. Regmi cites cases where Kipat land were sold and mortgaged as central interference began to grow. The law however was clear that when the debtor died or absconded, his creditor no longer had any claim on the land but only against the person and his estate or household property. The land went back to being a community property. The Ranas also found an indirect way to tax the homestead instead of the land as a way to get around the Kipat tenure.

Historians tell us that in order to get the Kirants of east Nepal to agree to become part of the Gorkhali empire, King Prithvi Narayan Shah agreed to allow the Kipat system to prevail until “the salt separated from the water in which it was dissolved”. Dr Mahesh Chandra Regmi cites in his book that the founder of the present Shah dynasty decreed: “Enjoy your land from generation to generation, as long as it remains in existence….In case we confiscate your land, may our ancestral gods destroy our kingdom.”

Anil Chitrakar is a founding member of Kathmandu 2020 and has launched Crafted in Kathmandu to help local artisans.
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