Nepal’s complex social structure makes identifying indigenous populations particularly challenging. Adivasi/Janajati (or indigenous peoples or nationalities) are defined as those ethnic groups and communities that ‘have their own mother tongue and traditional customs, distinct cultural identity, distinct social structure and written or oral history of their own’. The 2011 census identified 126 different ethnic groups, over 123 languages and great religious diversity. Indigenous Peoples in Nepal are not a homogenous group. The Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities classified the 59 indigenous groups recognized by the government into five categories based on a set of socioeconomic indicators: ‘endangered’, ‘highly marginalized’, ‘marginalized’, ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘advantaged’. At the bottom of the scale are the so-called endangered and highly marginalized groups, the focus of this profile. These groups are not only of small population sizes, but also rank very low on human development indicators. More than 90% of endangered and highly marginalised groups live in remote rural areas and rely on subsistence agriculture or hunting and gathering.
Many endangered and highly marginalized groups face problems in maintaining their language and cultural identity, either due to their small size or because they have been forced to give up essential elements of their culture and ways of life to access government services or avoid discrimination. While about 65% of endangered and highly marginalized groups are estimated to still speak their language fluently, their numbers are slowly being eroded.
One of the main immediate causes of vulnerability for endangered and highly marginalised groups is lack of education. Geographical isolation limits their prospects, but so do the content and medium of education. Only one third of endangered and highly marginalised groups are estimated to be able to speak Nepali. Endangered and highly marginalised groups own little, inferior quality land and their access to natural resources is increasingly curtailed. They lack titles to the land they have occupied for generations, which makes it difficult to obtain citizenship certificates. Loss of traditional livelihoods, deforestation, impacts of climate change and lack of access to basic services result in their displacement and forced migration.
A significant cluster of underlying causes for the vulnerability of endangered and highly marginalised groups stems from the legal framework and the lack of political representation. Endangered and highly marginalised groups are deprived of political participation and are marginalized from decision-making processes, including those that relate to local development. They have almost no representation in public service. On the other hand, legislation that has explicit provisions to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in general and these groups in particular is often not implemented.
The Interim Constitution guarantees the civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights of all Adivasi/Janajati, recognizes them as beneficiaries of affirmative and protective measures in employment, education and political participation, and incorporates rights to proportional representation. The government established the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities to coordinate supporting initiatives by formulating and implementing programmes related to their social, educational, economic and cultural development. A social security scheme for endangered indigenous groups, such as the Raute and Bankariya, is also proposed. The civil service laws, Military Act and Rules, Nepal Police Act and Regulations, Education Act, Scholarship Act and Armed Police Act include affirmative provisions for Adivasi/Janajati. The Amended Civil Service Act 2007, Nepal Police Regulation and Armed Police Regulation reserve 45% of vacant posts for Adivasi/Janajati, though records to assess this goal against are not accessible.
During the cycle of the UN Development Assistance Framework, the UN Country Team in Nepal will support the government to foster cultural enterprises; enable the endangered and highly marginalised groups to preserve and value their tangible and intangible heritage; ensure that academia are better able to focus research on the root causes of discrimination; and assist the Ministry of Local Development and indigenous people’s organisations to implement, monitor, evaluate and report on the National Plan of Action for the Promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights based on ILO Convention 169.