Nepali Times
Shared rule, self-rule


Balkrishna MabuhangAs the political parties and academics start suggesting models of federalism, Alok Bohara has put forward his own cooperative federal structure ('The boundaries of federalism', #431). He argues that the Maoists' ethnic-based federalism and the One Madhes demand would invite unnecessary complications.

He proposes Kosi, Bagmati, Gandaki and Karnali provinces with ethnic enclaves within them so that they establish a level playing field, economic growth, ethnic tolerance and resource distribution.

But his proposal isn't taken too seriously politically because it seems to ignore what federalism in this country is designed to do: address the long-standing grievances and repression of individual groups by a central feudal state apparatus.

Once the Maoists launched their armed struggle in the name of ethnic autonomy and the right to self determination, ethnic and regional organisations joined them directly or indirectly. As the peace process began, Madhesi parties ceased to trust the Maoists and began their own struggle. Similarly, Limbuwan and Khambuwan in the east, Tharuhat in west Tarai, Tamuwan in the west, and Tamsaling and Nepal Mandal in the centre are continuing the struggle for autonomy.

It doesn't make any sense to consider state restructuring without considering these ethnic and regional aspirations. The basic principle of federalism is to divide the state rule into two levels: the provincial and the local. How autonomous the states are is the critical factor and the constitution should lay out provisions for self-governance at the grassroots.

Federalism is itself a cooperative because the local and provincial governments within and outside their areas of authority work both in partnership and separately with the centre playing a unitary monitoring role. It is the concept of shared and self-rule.

The Maoists have proposed 11 provinces and three autonomous sub-provinces, while MJF put forward the United Madhes demand before the election. The NC and UML sidestepped the issue altogether, which led to their dismal performance in the elections.

Bohara is trying to give the NC and UML a viable alternative proposal. It is true that we have to find ways to address the Madhesi demand for united autonomy but we must also accommodate the ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences that exist there. Similarly, the Maoists' federal structure based on ethnicity, region and language, which incorporates the needs of indigenous communities, should be addressed properly.

Bohara's federal units mimic Nepal's own topographical make-up. This, he says, is needed to make the units viable and have a competitive advantage. He argues the mountains, hills and Tarai complement each other. For example, Bohara says, the creation of a Limbuwan province may deprive Kochila of resources and therefore proposes one state so that the resources could be shared.

His fears that Limbuwan may sell its electricity to India instead of giving it to Kochila are unfounded because both provinces would be answerable to the central government. The issues of economy and resource-sharing are at the heart of any discussion of federalism in Nepal.

Economic factors, however, have been decisive in very few countries drawing up a federal structure. The centre can always balance out the provinces that may feel shortchanged with special packages or re-distribution of resources to reduce economic disparity.

Instead of discussing which province has the most or least resources, it is important to use them collectively for human welfare. Provincial or inter-provincial mechanisms must be developed to distribute resources according to need.

Bohara calls for Nepalis to rise above ethnic interests to resolve the nation's common problems. But ethnicity is the reality of our society, it will have to be addressed. True politics is not based on ethnicity, religion or class but a system of democratically elected governments. However, we can't overlook the politics of identity anymore in this country.

The social make-up needs to be studied, affirmative action is required to take the dividend of good governance to the grassroots. The slogan of inclusion should not remain just a slogan. Ethnic slogans will fade away once the state develops a proper mechanism to deliver.

Balkrishna Mabuhang is professor at the Central Department of Population of Tribhuban University.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)