On April 25th, 2015, Tara Devi Sunar was finishing up some housework when Nepal’s earthquake hit. Her two children were inside watching TV. “I ran out of the house and everything collapsed,” Sunar, 32, says. Her village, a cluster of stone homes clinging to the face of a Himalayan ridge along the Tibetan border, was flattened in instants.
Sunar, a schoolteacher who belongs to a low-caste community, spent months with her children living under tarpaulin tents—along with dozens of other displaced families. One would be hard-pressed to find a silver lining in Nepal’s earthquake, whose death toll soared to almost 9,000—except when it comes to caste. In relief camps, where camp residents share meals and cramped facilities, disenfranchised groups experienced an eerie, post-disaster equality. “We worked together, ate together,” another earthquake survivor, a Dalit, or “untouchable,” said in an interview. “The issue of caste never came into play.”
Two years later, as Nepal continues to slide from initial phases of relief and rehabilitation into long-term rebuilding, some planners want to use the country’s earthquake as a springboard for tackling deep-seated divisions.
Since 2015, Dwarika’s Hotel, a luxury heritage resort which runs properties in Kathmandu and the hill town of Dhulikhel, has managed its own IDP camp for earthquake survivors who lost their homes in the disaster. Many of their camp residents come from the northern district of Sindhupalchowk, where over 80 percent of houses were destroyed. The hotel has plans to rebuild 14 of Sindhupalchowk’s flattened villages, but with an ambitious twist.
“We are going to remove [the category of] the Dalits completely,” says Sangeeta Shreshta Einhaus, Managing Director of Dwarika’s. The project, which the hotel team hopes to complete by 2018, will relocate 14 displaced communities within the district, and consolidate them into six new areas, which a volunteer team of geologists has deemed safe. (The original village lands, still dotted with debris, remains vulnerable to landslides.)
“I always had this vision to build permanent homes,” Shreshta Einhaus says. The project relies on Nepal’s post-disaster rallying cry of “Build Back Better” to revamp rural life. Before the earthquake, the villages relied on subsistence farming and tourism to survive in the region’s picturesque but harsh terrain. The hotel aims to introduce sleek, earthquake-resistant new homes and added eco-features like rainwater harvesting, biogas, and organic agriculture. “We’re building houses for the next generation,” says Shreshta Einhaus. “It’s about the destiny of these people.” Most importantly, and likely the more challenging feature to implement, is the hotel’s final stipulation: “Everyone has to be equal.”
Nepal is officially the world’s only Hindu country, and caste divisions run deep. The 2,000 year old Hindu hierarchy, upheld widely throughout the Indian subcontinent, despite anti-untouchability laws, divides populations into four distinct social groups, headed by Brahmins at the top. They traditionally dictated a person’s trade or profession, and now function largely as rigid class divisions—ones where upward mobility is ruled out. In Nepal, a labyrinthian network of sub-castes complicates an already arcane and baffling system. The idea of “ritual purity” forms much of its backbone, governing not only whom you can marry, but also which groups can even interact—with particularly draconian rules around sharing food and drinks.
At the bottom of the social ladder lies a fifth group of outliers, the Dalits, who make up about 20 percent of Nepal’s population. Originally landless laborers, they are literal outcasts who, in cities, are now relegated to lowly roles such as sweepers or sewage cleaners, and are barred from using public transport. In 2011, caste-based discrimination in Nepal was officially made illegal. Yet caste divisions—and a legacy of anti-Dalit violence—still pervade everyday life in South Asia, leading the hashtag #DalitLivesMatter to frequently pop up on Twitter. Shunned by society, Dalits often have trouble renting properties, while city planners tend to allot them homes along the peripheries of housing developments. Out in the countryside, caste practices also segregate villages, forming an invisible system of exclusion that Human Rights Watch calls “hidden apartheid.”
So, in earthquake-battered Nepal, how does one break caste barriers, designing for social inclusion? For the team at Hotel Dwarika’s, it means putting Dalit homes smack in the middle of each rebuilt village. Of the 222 homes that are still to be constructed, 22 Dalit families will be centrally situated. “If we are able to do this, I think this is one of the biggest achievements of my life,” Shreshta Einhaus says of the proposal, which is designed to make caste-based discrimination impossible by enforcing shared space. Already in village shelters, “the kids now are starting to say there’s no difference” between castes, says Shreshta Einhaus. “I tell them, ‘You’re gonna [be] on the Newsweek cover, the first area where there’s no inequality. You have eradicated untouchability.”
Nepal’s earthquake already accelerated the erosion of old social systems, leaving room for enterprising interventions. “You might say this is the best time to strike,” explains Dipankar Gupta, an Indian sociologist and specialist on caste. But can caste-conscious planning really loosen untouchability’s chokehold on rural Nepal? “Design matters,” says Camillo Boano, an architect who has worked extensively in the humanitarian sector, “[but] inclusion cannot be solely generated by design.”
“I think it’s a good idea, to have Dalit homes interspersed with non-Dalit homes,” Gupta says. But, the danger persists Dalits will still be “looked down upon and shunned by those around them because their thinking has not changed.” Even with enforced interaction between castes led by planning, Dalits “might not be a part of everyday life,” he says.
“The state should do more to end discrimination against Dalits because the people won’t,” argued Dhana Bahadur Mijar, of the Dalit NGO Federation, in a powerful op-ed last year. Whether successful or not, the caste-purging project has a built-in merit: while waiting for the government to enforce laws, some people, at least, are bringing about their own change.