From Subjects to Citizens? Labor, Mobility and Social Transformation in Rural Nepal

Jeevan Sharma, Antonio Donini

Research output: Book/ReportOther report


This report is a follow-up to our previous study on Maoist
insurgency and local perceptions of social transformation in
Nepal. It presents and analyses the fi ndings of a two-month
long fi eld research on the nature of changes on labor relations
and mobility in western Nepal. The fi eld-research was guided
by these key questions: what is the nature of change in labor
relations in rural Nepal? Has labor shifted from ‘semi-feudal’ and
‘peasant’ modes of production in agricultural settings to ‘wage
labor’ in urban and non-agricultural settings? Has this process
benefi tted laboring households in rural Nepal? Findings from
our fi eld research suggest that labor relations in rural Nepal
have undergone major changes in recent decades accompanied
by livelihood diversifi cation and multi-locale livelihoods in
Nepal. Not only has rural to urban migration emerged as an
important part of livelihoods, rural laboring households are
drawing income both from wage labor in agriculture and other
wage labor opportunities that have emerged locally. Attached
forms of patron-client caste based relations have signifi cantly
weakened. Although traditional forms of semi-feudal labor
relations have not disappeared completely and some poorer
households are still engaged in semi-feudal and caste-based
labor arrangements in agriculture, there is clear evidence of
increasing numbers of laboring households involved in wage
labor within or outside the village. Many are commuting to
work in construction and informal sectors in nearby villages
or roadside markets and cities. In our attempt to understand
the political economy of rural livelihoods and labor, we have
identifi ed four themes to characterize the changing nature
of labor in Nepal: a) diversifi cation of rural livelihoods from
land and agriculture-based to non-agricultural and nonland
based; b) gradual weakening of traditional systems of
labor arrangements including caste-based division of labor;
c) commodifi ed labor; and d) widespread mobility of labor
both within and outside of the country. Overall, we argue that
these changes indicate a clear shift in the social and economic
position of the laboring population from subjects to citizens.
This change has increased economic and political agency
of the laborers and laboring households but is not free from
vulnerabilities and risks. Despite the weakening of semi-feudal
labor relations, laboring households have not been able to
enhance their economic status on a signifi cant or a sustainable
basis. Compared to the past, wages have increased and laboring
households have access to cash, but income is not enough to
meet subsistence needs as the sources of expenses have also
increased and so has their dependence on the market.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationBoston, MA
PublisherTufts University
Number of pages32
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012


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