Nepali Times
Constitution Supplement
Nepal's multi-ethnic future


Nepal is a country of ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities. Out of 75 districts, only 14 have majorities of any particular ethnic group. Thus, autonomy of a single ethnic community is impossible.

There are three main reasons for Nepal to opt for a federal structure: ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. This is a country of 82 languages, 100 castes and ethnic groups, and 10 religions. And this diversity is not represented in the structure of government at any level.

The other rationale for federalism is so that there is a truly decentralised decision-making mechanism. This is necessary to redress the imbalance and to take development to remote places so that the people have access to state services. Federalism would also ensure national unity of castes, creeds, religions, languages and cultures while giving their identities representation.

In short, the new federal state should address the issues of inclusion, decentralisation, balanced and sustainable regional development and a sense of national unity. But there are certain prevailing realities:

First: There is no nationwide majority of any particular ethnicity but there are pockets where particular ethnic groups have a relative majority.

Second: Certain ethnic groups have a relative majority in 14 districts whereas no particular group has majority in the remaining 61 districts.

Whichever way federal units are carved out, they will ultimately be multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. Ethnic autonomy is impossible in Nepal.

Therefore, there is no alternative to sharing power in proportion to the relative size of each group, and to ensure good governance. District demarcation already address ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity we need not divide them further.

Third: there is an absolute majority of a particular ethic groups in one third of the VDCs and municipalities. Even Dalits and minority groups have majority in certain VDCs. Similarly, 84 per cent of VDCs are dominated by a particular language. In this way, the provincial autonomy should be mixed whereas the autonomy in VDCs and municipal level can be based on the absolute majority of a particular ethnicity.

Fourth: the Tarai itself also has a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-cultural character. Therefore, a single cultural regional autonomy like One Madhes Pradesh is not possible.

The federal structure of Nepal should therefore take the following criteria into account:

Ethnic, lingual and cultural dominance or settlement, availability of natural and economic resources, geographical situation and proximity, administrative viability, inter-provincial economics and trade.

Ethnic composition alone should not be a factor in demarcating federal units. We should also look if the provinces have enough resources and other facilities, if not, think how to distribute these facilities among all proposed 15 provinces. The unequal distribution of resources could lead to future conflict.

Representation of marginalised communities within federal units can be guaranteed through a system of proportional representation. Affirmative action could reserve jobs for them in the public sector.

If a particular ethnic group can have a majority within certain VDCs and municipalities, they can be given cultural and local autonomy. Dalits and minority communities can thus have a sense of being autonomous within the province. Since Dalits do not have separate geographical region there has to be an alternative electorate to ensure their representatives.

There are 11 languages spoken by less than one per cent of the total population, which can be allowed to be official language in the provinces. Besides, holidays for minorities on their festivals can ensure cultural inclusion. A multi-lingual policy could promote one link language, one dominant local language and one international.

Foreign affairs, national security and monetary policy should be under the central government. Similarly, postal and communication, international trade, projects in which more than one provinces are involved, international transportation, highway and mega hydroprojects should be the responsibility of the federal government while the rest should be given to the provinces.

The crucial agenda for the CA to decide will be the kind of federalism Nepal should have. It will not solve all our problems, and we should have no illusions that federalism will come with its own set of problems. We can not create a perfect federal structure, but it has to be seen as work in progress.

Shyam Shrestha is a political analyst and editor of the monthly magazine, Mulyankan.

"A mini-referendum"

Despite complicated questionnaires, tour gives CA members chance to meet the people


The 601 CA members have divided into 40 groups and have fanned out across the country to collect the people's suggestions for the new constitution through questionnaires and public hearings.

Some 3.4 million sets of the 60-page long questionnaire have been printed, and there are 45 for each VDC and 10 for each municipality ward.

Carrying bundles of questionnaires, CA members are finding out the people's opinions on state structure, governance, federalism, inclusion and election system.

CA chair Subas Nembang says the enumerators in this 'mini referendum' are instructed to be objective and not politically motivated while they carry out this exercise. However, Maoist CA member Narayan Kaji Shrestha and Rashmiraj Nepali of National People's Front (NPF) have already been spotted being blatantly partisan. Shrestha was giving public speeches in his home district Gorkha while Nepali was campaigning against federalism in Dang.

However, some CA members believe it provides a vital opportunity to build relations with the people. Nabindra Raj Joshi, who has been collating views in the capital says door-to-door visits have helped him understand feelings at the grassroots. "People have spoken out about democracy, federalism and the country's peace and prosperity, which will be helpful in drafting the new constitution," he says.

CA member Bishnu Rimal says people in Bhaktapur are participating in the campaign enthusiastically while in in Chhaling VDC, 391 people filled out questionnaires. The process was disrupted in Tarai districts by the Tharu movement, but the CA secretariat claimed it was peaceful in other districts.

Initially the questionnaires were designed to seek opinions only about some basic and theoretical issues. But the CA members wanted to go further, making the questionnaire long and complicated.

Mukunda Sharma, spokesperson for the CA secretariat says the members designed the questionnaires themselves. "The data collection and processing will also be done by CA members, helping build up the people's ownership of the statute," Sharma says.

In a press conference in Nepalgunj, Maoist CA member Mohammad Istiyak Rai questioned why the questionnaires were not in Urdu. TMLP Mahanta Thakur said the questionnaires were too complex for Madhesi and indigenous people to understand. In a statement he called for the collection in the Tarai to be postponed. But Sharma counters: "This questionnaire was prepared by them (CA members). Nobody talked about the language then,".

The government has spent Rs 85 million on printing the questionnaires, alone. On top of that are transport expenses and the travelling and daily allowances of the CA members. Although the idea of going to the people attracted widespread praise, the procedure is coming under fire. What if the people speak out against secularism and federalism, which have already been decided upon, will such opinions be rejected?

Even CA members admit that the questionnaires are not scientific and many people don't know how to fill them out.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)