|| ETHNIC FEDERALISM
During our two-month visit to Nepal beginning in February, hundreds of individuals shared their views and opinions about their living conditions, the economy and the new government. While differences exist among government officials, businessmen, academics and students, most agree that the creating a federal republic based on ethnicity is not the answer. Some groups such as the Rastriya Jana Morcha party oppose the idea of federalism altogether.
While we were travelling, the Rastriya Jana Morcha periodically set-up road blocks protesting the idea of implementing a federal system in Nepal. Our movement hindered by 8-10 hours at a time in various locations including Narayangadh and Kathmandu, it gave us a chance to talk to stranded drivers, passengers, and shopkeepers about the troubles they were facing due to the bandhs. Except for a few shopkeepers who were able to capitalize on the needs of desperate passengers, nobody was happy with the bandh program. At the same time, nobody was willing to speak out against the bandhs either.
When asked, “What type of government is best for Nepal?” virtually everyone stated that they did not believe federal government based on ethnicity would result in political stability, while others spoke out against the idea of implementing any form of federalism. One individual stated: “We do not want a divided Nepal,” while another professed the belief that “federalism creates anarchy.”
Conversation with stranded Nepali drivers revealed that many believe the Maoist ethnicity-based federalism proposal is responsible for the current problems in Nepal. One individual was of the opinion that “it is better to suffer for a day or two, to make political leaders realize that dividing Nepal along ethnic lines is not the answer.” Another added, “Dividing Nepal into ethnic states would result in continued conflict and suffering.”
In a more formal setting, during a talk sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Development (CESOD-Nepal), the opinions of various youth groups--belonging to UCPN (Maoist), CPN-UML, Nepali Congress, the Madhesi Front, the RPP and RJP--differed from those of individuals encountered on the streets during the bandhs. Young attendees spoke favorably of a federal Nepal state, but not of an ethnicity-based federalism. Asked about creating a five-state federal model based on the natural north-south boundaries of Nepal’s four major rivers, Madheshi front members reiterated their demand for a separate Tarai state. They did agree that maintaining the free-flow of ecological services between Nepal’s three regions—mountains, hills, and Tarai--was essential.
The Madheshi groups living in the Tarai region of Nepal are distinct and their interests deserve fair and equal representation in any government model. International organizations and non-government organizations are actively involved in promoting the idea of ethnic federalism assuming that such a model is best for indigenous groups. Donor countries such as Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Britain invoke ILO Convention 169 in support of indigenous peoples´ human rights. To this end, these countries provide assistance to ethnicity-based organizations that also promote the “autonomy of indigenous peoples” included in ILO Convention 169. Efforts to preserve traditional cultures and languages are necessary and important in an ever-globalizing world. However, the good intentions of donor countries and organizations to protect communities from the forces of globalization may do more harm than good to the country as a whole.
Nepal’s southern neighbor is an outside force that is influential in Nepali politics. Many Tarai leaders openly discuss their relationship with India as well as India’s support for a Tarai state. Indian officials would like to see the new state boundaries of Nepal drawn horizontally, from east to west, and not from north to south. Careful analysis of Nepal’s population distribution, natural resource locations, and revenues generated in each of Nepal’s existing 75 districts statistically proves such a model is founded on poor assumptions. Dividing the country along an east-west parallel would “institutionalize marginalization” according to one individual interviewed and possibly result in a civil war.
The natural boundaries of Nepal’s major rivers provide a natural solution to unifying the three regions of the Nepal while eliminating poverty. The bulk of Nepal’s population (47 percent) is concentrated in southern Tarai that constitutes 17 percent of the country´s total area. While the rest of Nepal could not survive without the foodstuff produced in the Tarai region, the Tarai cannot sustain its agricultural economy without the water that flows from Nepal’s mountain and hill regions. Eighty percent of Nepal’s workforce is employed directly or indirectly in agriculture or the ecological services necessary to sustain farms. Dividing the country along east-west boundaries will create severe ecological imbalances among the regions. Boundaries drawn based on ethnicity may result in certain groups having an unfair advantage accessing natural resources over others.
The proposed models of ethnic federation have created enmity, resentment and adversarial relations among groups. The same political leaders who first proposed the idea of ethnicity-based federalism now realize that such a model is untenable. A High Level Restructuring report commissioned by the Maoist party proposed dividing the district of Chitwan into six different states based on ethnicity. When Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal visited Chitwan, he was greeted with protests and signs that read, “We do not accept a divided Chitwan.” The Chairman reassured the people that he would not allow Chitwan to be divided. In the case of Chitwan, dividing the region would almost certainly result in conflict between groups that once lived peacefully together.
Government leaders have up to May 27 to produce a new constitution. Leaders and citizens generally agree that Nepal will be a federal republic. But the exact structure of federalism, the number of states, the boundaries of these states, and the power sharing agreement between the states and the federal government are yet to be decided. Such decisions may be arrived at through a referendum, political consensus, or a two-third majority vote of elected representatives. Once state boundaries are established, sub-state administrative units may be created. As the restructuring of Nepal would not be flawless no matter how it is done, in order to meet May 27 deadline political leaders should include provision of federal Nepal in the new constitution for now, but eventually put the issue up for referendum so as not to give birth to ethnic warlords.
The process of re-drawing the boundaries of Nepal cannot be rushed and must consider: a) the power and resource sharing formula between the central government and states; b) the devolution of authority and responsibility to states and agencies; c) ensuring the rights, identity, and culture of minority and indigenous groups; and d) the economic viability of each state based on equal access to natural resources.
Regardless of the type of federalism that is adopted, a three-tiered administrative structure--central, state and local government with clearly spelled out jurisdictions and agencies to manage natural resources and revenue sharing need to be included in the constitution. Such provisions will help prevent future conflicts and disintegration. Local communities throughout the country need to be empowered to improve the living conditions of people at the grassroots.
Proposed ethnic federalism models have created enmity and resentment. The same leaders who first proposed the idea now realize such a model is untenable.
Cooperation among groups and across regions is critical to development of Nepal. Government officials must also avoid policies that provide special rights (Agradhikar) to certain ethnic groups and in turn institutionalize tensions and conflict. Even development and equal opportunity among peoples and across states is necessary to promote economic growth. In the end, the leaders of Nepal must put aside their differences and work together to create a prosperous Nepal. As Albert Einstein once said “the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination… intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them.”
Bhattarai is Professor of Geography while Budd is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of International Studies, University of Central Missouri, US