The power of citizenship cards in Nepal

Koshila Devi Malli with her citizenship card
Koshila Devi Malli with her citizenship card. Photo: Devendra Dhungana, UNDP Nepal

Koshila Devi Malli of Murtiya in Sarlahi, a day wage labourer, has found a new source of pride. She and her husband now have Nepali Citizenship card and its attendant benefits to brag about. Four years ago, there was very little she knew about a citizenship card, let alone having one.

“We didn’t know what a citizenship card did,” says Koshila Devi. “The only thing that mattered to us then was finding work for daily survival."

Highlights:

  • A baseline survey conducted by UNDP LRP within the selected poverty pockets shows that the number of people obtaining citizenship has increased to 74% from 69%. The number could certainly go up, but the cross border marriage practices in the Terai makes it complicated to establish supporting documents to acquire a citizenship card for many families.

Without citizenship, no official business can be conducted in Nepal. You can’t own land or house, open a bank account or apply for driving license. A citizenship card decides one’s legal presence and those without one cannot participate in social welfare programmes run by the state.

Because poor and marginalized groups are deprived of opportunities, they are usually illiterate and have little awareness about the country’s laws.

Even by conservative estimates, there are several hundred thousand Nepali citizens living without a citizenship card in Nepal’s hills and plains.

In 2010, UNDP's Livelihood Recovery for Peace (LRP) project began to work with some of these groups in some of the lowest performing districts in the Terai (southern plains). The project created awareness about the importance of citizenship card, vital registration, availability of government social welfare schemes, health and hygiene and ways to benefit from the state run programmes.

The project works in poor pockets of 208 Village Development Committees today. Koshila Devi who has seen her life turn around had joined one of the several social groups formed with the help of the project.

“Initially community members were very reluctant to join our groups,” says Hari Nandan Das Ranjan, a social mobiliser from the Dalit* community in Murtiya VDC of Sarlahi.  "In the beginning I really struggled to convene the group meetings because they would ask obvious questions like how would attending a meeting put food in their plate.”

But now community members are responding well to the project’s activities. They have now understood that a citizenship card is essential to receive constitutional and legal rights as well as to ensure their access to resources and opportunities.

Since last year, Koshila Devi’s daughter, twelve-year old Mansariya Devi Ram, has been receiving a Dalit scholarship worth Rs 200 a year after acquiring a birth certificate from the Village Development Committee.  

There is growing awareness today among these poor communities that citizenship card also entitles them for an old age pension and single women pension, among other services. This has led to a change of attitude among parents, who once couldn’t think beyond daily survival. Many of them now want their children to become teachers and other professionals. Some of them are also taking a more active role in the community, participating in management of their community’s educational and health facilities.

Today, a total of 21,215 members, including Koshila Devi, from the vulnerable, excluded and economically deprived communities have been organized into 728 community groups. In these groups community members are learning about toools available to them to access state services, while actively contributing to the development of their communities as well.