Dilli Chaudhary

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 1992
This description of Dilli Chaudhary's work was prepared when Dilli Chaudhary was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992 .


Dilli Bahadur Chaudary, a member of the Tharu tribe who saw his father beaten for seeking schooling, is sparking the new generation of Tharus to organize their own night schools in village after village.

The New Idea

Almost half of Nepal's population consists of tribal groups just now coming to grips with the modern world. Isolated by the country's steep mountains, malaria in the lowlands, and rulers who blocked the creation of schools until the 1950s even for the majority, these groups only now have a critical mass of youngsters recognizing that education is important. Dilli Chaudary is a part of that new generation. A member of the Tharu tribal community, one of the country's largest and most exploited, Dilli negotiated with landowners to let their indentured servants, because of prior debts, come to study after work in the evening. He organized simple night classrooms with a blackboard, pencil, and notebook for each student, a kerosene light, and a teacher (initially volunteers). He supplemented these literacy classes with instruction on how to generate income independent of the landowners, be it through rabbit raising or mushrooms_ important both to build economic independence and to make the benefits of education more immediately obvious, especially to the older generation. Initially, Dilli had to go door-to-door and organize youth groups and events to encourage the Tharu to participate. As his results became clearer, more and more people came. He particularly reached out to young women, who traditionally were even less likely to have the opportunity to become literate than were men. (In Nepal as a whole only eighteen percent of the women are literate; the average is even lower for Tharu women.) Now women constitute the majority of his students. Dilli's organization presently conducts literacy classes in sixty villages in the Dang district and has 120 teachers (chiefly volunteers) and more than 5,000 students. While still working to expand the program in Tharu communities, he eventually plans to spread his approach to other tribal communities.

The Problem

The Tharus are one of the many uneducated indigenous tribal populations in Nepal. They have inhabited the low-lying Terai area in southwest Nepal for centuries. Although the land was fertile and ideal for agriculture, the threat of malaria provided a barrier to settlers from outside the valleys who did not have the resistance the Tharus had. In the 1960s, malaria eradication campaigns supported by outside donors started a process disastrous for the Tharus. The forests were cut to open new fields. Brahman-Chhetris from the hills and Kathmandu came into this area and gradually forced most of the Tharu farmers off their land. Due to their illiteracy and trusting nature, the Tharus were easily manipulated into signing documents that relinquished their claims to the land. Most of these Tharus also became bonded servants to the new landlords.Over the past twenty-five years, the oppression of the Tharus has increased. Lack of family planning has led to a high infant mortality rate as well as additional health problems. Also, there are serious problems of alcoholism among landless Tharu men. Without education, the Tharus have had no way to loosen the grip of their landlords or to develop new, independent strategies.Until 1951, education for those not in the ruling classes of Nepal was discouraged. Only a very few of the poor, tribal Nepalis were able to pursue an education, and these individuals had to go to India in order to attend school or university. In the late 1950s, the government began to establish a limited number of public schools in major towns. However, even today, the country's thirty-five percent literacy rate serves as one of the primary obstacles to development. Many of the Tharus in the Dang and Deokhuri areas in western Nepal could not attend school because of family landlessness and poverty and due to the fact that they were bound from a young age as indentured servants.

The Strategy

Dilli has a three-pronged approach to opening education to the Tharu community: formal education, cultural empowerment, and income generation. He began with village literacy classes. As his work gained momentum, more and more young Tharus joined him, united by the common pursuit of education. As the number of night classes multiplied, Dilli began building a grassroots organization, the Backward Society Education (BASE). Dilli is the president of BASE, and each Tharu village in the area has a representative. As new leadership emerges in the villages outside the Dang area, BASE will encourage them to join.As the new landowners gradually gained more and more control over the Tharu community in the previous decades, the Tharus witnessed a steep decline in the vitality of their cultural traditions. The second part of Dilli's strategy is to work within the community to reclaim and honor these traditions in order to create unity and pride. Two years ago, he organized the first annual Tharu New Year celebration and cultural show featuring traditional dances and songs. This year more than 5,000 people attended from dozens of outlying villages. The third component of this empowerment strategy is Dilli's effort to get training for the Tharus in alternative income- generating activities and to organize small credit groups to get group-guaranteed loans from special bank programs. This includes cash crop production, pig and rabbit husbandry, sewing, and crafts. Dilli knows that literacy alone will not empower these poor Tharu tenants and agricultural laborers. Alternative sources of income not controlled by landlords are also needed.

The Person

Dilli saw his father beaten as punishment for going across the border to India to obtain an education; he has been committed to helping his people become educated since that day. Despite the harassment and humiliation he faced in the local schools, he persisted, completing ten grades. He is now completing the next two years through a correspondence course administered from Bombay.Unlike most other educated Tharus, he did not go to the city: he stayed in the Dang Valley and has gradually developed the organization and techniques that crystalize and make possible the educational dreams of his emerging generation.