Ethnicity argument has been dominant in Nepal’s federalization debate, with practically no consideration for financial sustainability, interdependence and developmental potential. Federalism is economically an expensive proposition. Each province will have to maintain a separate civil service, police system, legislature, cabinet and all other trappings of a modern federal state. Reliance on heavy central support even to maintain basic administrative services will make mockery of self rule and autonomy arguments, while overstretching the central government’s finances beyond limits in a country which can generate very little revenue surplus after meeting recurrent costs of one government at present. Numerous single ethnicity-based provinces without consideration of revenue capacity can be a financial nightmare.
Multiplication will create mostly unviable deficit provinces. In a federal system, central government will redistribute resources from surplus provinces to deficit ones to ensure equity and uniform level of basic services in all provinces. This principle can work when there exist excess number of surplus provinces in relation to a few deficit ones. But in the proposed model, a couple of surplus provinces will have to perform an impossible task of subsidizing a large number of deficit units. It will soon generate resentment in better-off provinces. In such a scenario, federal structure cannot function in the real sense. It will be workable only if provinces function more like central’s administrative units with decentralized power.
While ethnicity and language consideration represents an important factor in provincial demarcation, it cannot be the sole consideration in a country which has more than 100 ethnic groups and a similar number of spoken languages.
Interestingly, the protagonists of single ethnicity province want to confine this concept to hilly region, and accept only one or two provinces concept in the Madhes region. Selective application of single ethnicity principle will have other consequences. Firstly, it will create provinces of unequal sizes; population in the Tarai provinces will be much larger than in hills. Some degree of inequality is understandable in view of sparsely populated large territory in hill-mountains, as opposed to high population concentration in limited area of the Tarai region. But in the scheme of things proposed by the majority report, the average population of Madhes-based province will be many times higher than that of hill province. Secondly, it will have ramifications in regional power balance, as more provinces will naturally have larger representation and voices in decision making bodies.
The principle of single ethnicity province will not remain confined to the hilly region. This has already led to demand for at least five separate language-based provinces in the Tarai including Tharuwan, Abadh, Bhojpuri, Mithila and Birat regions. The demand may not stop even there, if the experience of other countries is any guide. Nigeria had initially three ethnic provinces; it has 36 at present.
It was against this background that the Nepali Congress proposed limited number of provinces, six or seven at the maximum, based not only on common or multi-ethnic identity, but also on economic viability. The proposal for Tamuwan-Magarat, Newa-Tamsaling, Kirat-Limbuwan, Mithila-Bhojpura and Avadh-Tharuhat was proposed to ensure sustainability, not to give demographic advantage to Bahun-Chhetri as alleged by some. Combination of two dominant Janajati groups can give better numerical advantage and strength to the Janajati movement than in single identity provinces, where the risk of all other excluded groups combining together to politically weaken the dominant community is real.
In fact for the sake of inter-communal unity and harmony, it will be preferable to find a common symbol and name, rather than a single or dual identity, with which all communities residing in the province could feel their identity and ownership. Was it not for the psychological discrimination felt by other religious groups that the world’s only Hindu state was declared a secular state? Alternatively, rather than fighting over the nomenclature of the provinces at this stage, it would be far better to leave the issue to be decided by the popularly elected representatives at the provincial level. This is the recommendation of the minority view in the State Restructuring Commission.
LONG AND BUMPY ROAD
The nation took a decision on a federal state with amendment in the constitution, following the Madhes movement. Except for the Sadvabana party, federalization was not in the agenda of other political parties. The Maoist Party stood for autonomous regions with right to self rule, which is not the same thing as federal units. Obviously, no serious debate has taken place about the complexities of federalization through de-construction and disaggregation in one of the oldest unitary nation states of modern times. Federalism is certainly not an easy system. The nation will have to cope with many more unanticipated issues both at conceptualization and implementation stages. The transition to a fully functional federal state will be a long and bumpy journey, not a smooth affair we would like to imagine.
Federal structure cannot effectively function in a scenario when a couple of surplus provinces have to subsidize a large number of deficit provinces.
Issues of provincial sustainability, future of current districts, potential disputes over sharing of natural resources between center and province, between and among provinces, and province and local levels are real and cannot be wished away. Nepal’s economic future lies in optimum and harmonious utilization of its water resources, biodiversity, agro and tourism potential, and human resources which will require cooperation and creative application, rather than fragmentation and destruction, of Nepali energy.
The nation cannot go back on its commitment on federalism. All major political parties have accepted it. But the challenge is how to make it doable and manageable for which cool-headed and balanced approach is necessary. If sentiment and petty interest start taking over rational thinking and long-term interest, federalization could prove to a proverbial Loreley song. Opponents of federalism are not those who sensing its challenges and risks try to find ways to minimize them; the real enemies are the ones who in their ignorance or ineptitude try to play on the sentiment of the people for narrow interest.
This is the second and final part of this two-part article, the first of which was published yesterday.