So far, proposals have centred on ethnically-demarcated and named federal units. But there is a need for an approach that also addresses the country's national integrity, sovereignty and the economic sustainablility of the regional units.
As has been pointed out by many demographers, geographers and social scientists, ethnic-based demarcation would be disastrous, and we have already seen precursors to communal violence even during the transitional period. Tensions are flaring not just between Pahad and Madhes but within ethnicities in the mountains and in the plains. State restructuring should aim to address existing injustices and inequalities as well as future potentials. Smaller ethnic groups should not be dominated by the major ethnic or linguistic groups within a federal unit.
There is a close ecological interdependence between the Tarai and hills. The grain-basket of the plains need the regulation of water in the mountains to prevent floods and provide irrigation. Forests in the mountains ensure ground-water recharge and prevent rising of river beds. Increased productivity in the Tarai, on the other hand, ensures food security in the mountains. The plains control access to the mountains, while the mountains control water that flows down to the plains. There is no way but for the two to co-exist in a highland-lowland interactive system.
The challenge therefore is for us to come up with a workable solution that reduces communal tension, preserves ethnic pride, promotes economic development and protects the environment for the long-term benefit of all Nepalis.
At present, the government is facing challenges to support sustainable development in the five current regions and 75 districts using resources from the centre. Local resources are either unmanaged or not enough to initiate development activities.
Current regions and zones address the symbiotic relationship between the hills and plains with river boundaries to the east and west. These five development regions are just the right size to serve as federal states. The sub-units could then address the need to include various ethnic and linguistic groups, fair representation of Dalits and other disadvantaged. The boundaries of existing districts, municipalities, VDCs and wards can then be re-delineated to accommodate the above issues. The major ethnic groups would then automatically have a say in future federal units.
While delineating state boundaries, the topography, geographical setting and rich biodiversity of Nepal must be taken into consideration so that a harmonious interdependence can be maintained between the people in the hills, mountains and Tarai through an integrated eco-system approach. One way to do this would be to use Nepal's main rivers as a criteria for delineating state boundaries by naming them Kosi, Gandaki or Karnali.
To do this, representatives of political parties must sit with groups agitating for ethnic autonomy and experts to sort out their rival claims and ensure that no future province is short-changed. A fair deal for future economic development must ensure an equitable distribution of hydropower potential, topography, demographics, agriculture, infrastructure possibilities and places of economic importance. Care must be taken to address the special needs of those marginalised, even within the excluded ethnicities and regions. l
Sushil Bhattarai is a consultant on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Natural Resource Management and has served 36 years in government, including as Regional Administrator in the Far-West Development Region.