Recent developments are adding to the complexity of state restructuring and federalism. While the Big Three leaders claim they are near consensus on number and name of provinces, Janajati caucus and ethnic groups have upped the ante for 14-ethnic states. Leaders representing indigenous, Dalits, Madhesis, Muslim and other communities met Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahl on Friday and pressured him not to give up 14-state ethnic model. To make matters even more complicated, Tharu leaders have come up with the proposal of three to four provinces in the Tarai. Given this, the hope that leaders will come around seven to eight states has been dashed. Pressure is mounting for ethnic provinces and federalism, as ever, is turning out to be the hardest nut to crack, raising doubts whether it was necessary or whether it was the right time to adopt it. Thus, four years since we began discourse on federalism, we seem to have come nowhere. Unless there is a miracle, state restructuring might not be settled until the midnight of May 27. There are several reasons why federalism has remained the thorniest issue of all, and why it has taken us the longest to resolve.
First, federalism is not a homegrown idea, nor is it the outcome of ‘People’s war’ and popular April Uprising of 2006. When Maoists presented their 40-point demand in 1996, before launching their war, federalism was not one of their demands. Nor was it an issue in the 12-Point Agreement signed between the seven parties and the Maoist insurgents in 2005. Federalism crept into Nepali political discourse after the Constituent Assembly elections of 2008. How did it appear all of a sudden? Journalist Yubaraj Ghimire points to external factors. He suggests that certain donor countries such as Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Britain are behind the ethnic organizations that espouse extreme views in the name of ethnic empowerment and they are interested in spreading social animosity by favoring impractical federalism (Annapurna Post, March 2). If this is the case, federalism is a forcefully planted seed without taking local factors into consideration, which, hence could implode. Not all donor funded agendas work as expected, argues William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden, because aid programs most often only serve the interests of the few.
Second, federalism is not people’s priority at the moment. What people want is rule of law and good governance, political stability and prospects for prosperity. Nepali Times columnist Rubeena Mahato writes, Madhesi people are worried, “about the lack of roads and bridges…lack of irrigation and . . .about their sons toiling in the deserts of the Gulf, and the fields they will have to sell to pay the middleman to send their second son to Qatar.” There is no sign of what is ballyhooed as “coming of Madhesi conflagration of anger, or a violent backlash if federalism is rejected” (March 9). Mahato’s observation on Tarai is applicable everywhere in Nepal, from the Madhesh to the hills to the mountains. Those leaders that claim people desperately want federalism have either not felt the public pulse or have ignored their aspirations altogether.
Third, for any system to work, including federalism, it should be founded on a strongly functioning democracy. Are we a democracy? Only in name. If one takes democracy as a system where might is right and where coordinated political effort to promote the interests of the few over everyone else gets the priority, we have been a democracy from the 1950s. But in true sense we have never been one. I am reminded of Professor Lokraj Baral’s argument in Constitutional Government and Democracy in South Asia, where he suggests that democracy in Nepal has been “perennially elusive despite having undergone democratic upheavals.” In fact, we have only had “democratic trappings.” Despite over a decade of active democratic exercise, Nepal still remains a country where votes are bought for money, and where mere offer of feast with meat with beaten rice and locally brewed liquor before the election day can influence people’s choice of political ideology and candidates.
Fourth, Nepal has virtually become a failed state. The 2010 issue of Foreign Policy puts Nepal in 26th position on failed states index. Political instability, weak economy, fragile security and lack of rule of law have pushed Nepal to the status of failed state—in two years, we have been able to correct none of these maladies. We are in a situation in which we have to build up things from scratch.
Five, federalism is not economically viable for a small country like ours. Murari Sharma is right in arguing that “federalization of the country will increase taxes, expand the size of government and crowd out the private sector” (Republica, March 4). And Nepali people—whose per capita income, according to Economic Survey 2011, is about Rs 46,000—will have to pay multiple taxes to sustain federation. Moreover, federation will require infrastructure building. We will require more and more palatial buildings like Singha Durbar across the country to house provincial secretariats and administrative offices. This will take us about half a decade and billions of funds. But the leadership does not seem to have any master plan for building new infrastructure.
Six, federalism becomes a necessity in a state with power concentrated at the center. But we have been a decentralized state for decades. The first steps towards decentralization, arguably, were taken by King Mahendra when he divided the country into 14 zones and 75 districts in 1960. The aim of this restructuring was “economic independence and self-reliance” of each district and zone. When king Birendra carved out five development regions with north-south borders three decades ago, the purported goal was to “empower each region to reap benefits of its culture, heritage, and resources for economic sufficiency.” But as it happened, those regions could not emerge as functioning administrative units, for the simple reason that those delegated to oversee governance misused authority, promoted cronyism and amassed huge wealth for themselves in the process. With the change of regime in 1990, decentralization changed its clothes. Gaun panchayat and nagar-panchayat were newly baptized as VDCs and municipalities, respectively but political parties occupied these local spaces and shared spoils in local funds; very little trickled down to the people. The problem therefore is not federalism, or lack thereof, but lack of good governance and service delivery.
The federalism claim has issues of linguistic, religious and cultural autonomy at its root. But the interim constitution has already recognized the state as “secular, multicultural, and multilingual.” Another justification offered by federalism proponents has been the marginalization of Dalits, Madhesis and a whole class of ethnic communities. True, despite half a decade of democracy, ethnic communities and Dalits languish in the dark corners of Nepali society; they have been forced to live in servitude and have been historically objectified as “others.” But this was not owing to the failure of a unitary state; rather an outcome of poor governance and service delivery from the center.
Apparently, leaders know of all such failings and weaknesses. They also understand the challenges of federalism. But despite this, by design or through ignorance, they have taken the boat of federalism to stormy waters wherefrom there is no easy return. There are risks in federating and dangers in not doing so too. The federal model, when it is coded in the constitution draft, will have to be ratified by two-third majority of CA members. There are altogether 217 lawmakers representing ethnic and indigenous communities in the CA. If recent developments are any indication, they will not vote in favor of a constitution that bypasses the 14-province ethnic model. And Nepali Congress and other parties, who have forcefully accepted federalism and who are now rooting for six to eight provinces at most, may stay out of voting for 14 provinces.
What shall we do? There are three options. One, keeping the number of states as small as possible so that it will be economically viable to maintain them. This will be a tall order, but the Big Three should try to bring the leaders of Janajati and indigenous communities on board and convince them why and how large number of states is unworkable. Two, making federalism subject to amendment in the constitution with regard to number, name and boundaries of provinces. And three, taking some more time for deliberations and putting up the issue in a referendum . It is not too late if the political leaders are ready to think about long-term consequences of every move they take. This is perhaps the first time we are going to decide such an important issue that will impact the course of politics for generations to come. A slip now could result into a big mishap in future.