Nepali Times
Federalism isn't a zero sum game


Source: The new structure of the country presented at the Seventh Convention of the Unified Maoists in Janakpur, 2009.
Federalism is the most hotly debated, and most misunderstood, issue of the current constitution-making process. Political parties, pressure groups and individuals are coming up with their own competing federalist models. What complicates things is that the politics of identity is difficult to reconcile with Nepal's multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-cultural and topographically diverse country.

Everyone knows that indigenous groups, women, Dalits and the Tarai communities have been historically marginalised by the state. Since April, voices calling for inclusion, participation and proportional representation in state policy have been raised.

Most of the proposals for a federal structure are based on ethnicity, while there are counter-proposals for including not just ethnicity, but languages, territory and natural resources.

In a country like ours where there are many castes, religions, cultures and geographic regions, there has to be more than one criteria to create federal units. Demarcating federal units based on geography or ethnicity alone would be neither workable nor acceptable.

Those who proposed provinces on the basis of ethnicity argue that the size of the population is not important. But such a proposal would be difficult to implement because of overlapping ethnic composition of proposed provinces.

Alternatively, those who propose a geographical demarcation have proposed mountain, hill and Tarai provinces. The problem with this is that there is ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural and geographical diversity within these regions.

The solution is a mixed model. For example it would be workable to base Limbuwan, Khambuwan, Tamsaling, Nepa:Mandal, Tamuwan, Magarat and Tharuhat on ethnicity while Mithila-Tharu and Bhojpuri-Abadhi could be based on language and Khasan and West Khasan on geography.

What's more, there are regions without any specific geographical distinction, with scattered castes and communities for whom we can adopt non-geographical provinces to ensure their representation in the federal government. This should be done to ensure representatives from Dalit communities.

But these decisions should be based on a scientific study and survey of castes, sub-castes and an updated status of indigenous nationalities. The decision should consider their settlements, historical background, geographic situation, linguistic, social, cultural and religious status as well as availability of natural resources. Besides, the final decision should be made only after consulting with the stakeholders so they can make informed choice and agreeon a solution.

Kathmandu is not only the country's capital but also it also represents the unitary central system. In a federal structure it should be purely an administrative unit which should be neutral and non-political.

The right to self-determination of federal units should be understood as regional ethnic autonomy to develop political, economic, social and cultural rights while keeping national unity, sovereignty and regional integrity intact.

The main purpose of the new constitution is to transform Nepal from a centralised unitary state to a federal republic.The challenge is to reconcile competing demands in a spirit of compromise. This is not a zero-sum game, everyone should win and learn to accept alternatives. Today's real issue is to make the state structures pro-people so that Nepalis can take command of their own destiny and improve their living standards.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)