Nepali Times Asian Paints
Guest Column
Reality check



Nepal may soon become a federal state. Up to now, the major debate has focused around the question of where to draw the lines. Some favour a federal state that follows ethnic boundaries, while others fear that this will open up a Pandora's Box and undermine the unity of Nepal. Both sides need a reality check.

First of all, countries don't break up that easily. Look at Africa: a continent riddled with weak economic systems, disputed borders, heavy interference by external powers, ethnic conflicts and confrontational politics. With the notable exceptions of Eritrea and Ethiopia, none have departed from their colonial boundaries. The nationwide solidarity shown with the displaced people in the Kosi floodplain is a clear sign that Nepal's national unity is a reality and will probably prevail in the future.

On the other hand, 'ethnic federalism' shouldn't be seen as a shortcut to success. Let's look at Belgium and India, for instance. Both countries are seen as exemplary cases of federalism and both divided themselves up according to ethnicity. Novertheless, both are facing increasing problems over the power balance between the centre and the different states.

In India, the states are asking for a bigger cut of the tax revenue to meet growing expenditure. In Belgium, the struggle of the northern state for more executive powers threw the government into a year-long deadlock, and this has still not been resolved.

If the experiences with federalism in these countries contain any lesson for Nepal, it would be that the fundamental question is not how federal units are demarcated but how power is shared between the centre and the units.

Nepal's unique diversity will need a unique model of federalism. Ethnicities are not dominant in any one region, economic connections transcend ethnic borders, and domination by one ethnic group in a certain area is mostly relative in comparison to the overall population in that area. All these issues need to be taken into account when devising the map of a federal Nepal. How to divide fiscal authority and accommodate both the interests of 'smaller minorities' vis-?-vis 'bigger minorities' are other tough questions ahead.

The opportunity we have in Nepal is that there is no power struggle yet between the centre and the states. This allows us to come up with a meaningful, well-balanced and sustainable federal system. An even bigger advantage is the presence of what has rightly been called the most inclusive body Nepal has ever had: the Constituent Assembly. This body bears not only the responsibility but also the legitimate mandate to design a federal structure in Nepal's new constitution.

For these advantages to have meaning, however, there are still some challenges to be met. The political parties should not only transcend the division between government and opposition, but also show a genuine commitment to the inclusive nature of the CA. Members of smaller parties or minorities groups should be included in the discussion.

This should limit the possibility of short-term political trade-offs for long-term constitutional matters, but more importantly can change the longstanding culture of backroom decision-making. Establishing an open and participative procedure for the drafting of the constitution will be a first step in creating a legitimate federal structure and much needed stability in New Nepal.

Up to now, the media spotlight has mainly been on the functioning of the new government, and rightly so. However, the assembly members shouldn't take this as a reason to take it easy. A lot of distance needs to be covered and it's time to get started.

Pieter De Schepper is a lecturer at National College, Kathmandu University.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)