From the Constituent Assembly to various meets, write-ups and television programs, ILO Convention No.169 on indigenous rights has been used to debate the idea of granting indigenous peoples rights over water, forests and land. But the issue isn't limited to debating indigenous rights. People have been claiming indigenous rights by force, banning other groups from the use of common natural resources in places.
Nepal is a diverse community of 102 ethnic groups. But these ethnicities are scattered all across the country. For instance, 96 different ethnic groups live in Jhapa district alone. Further, a single person can be categorised in many different ways. For example, a Rajbanshi from Morang district can be termed a Madhesi, a Janajati, a Maithili language speaker, a member of a backward community, and also a woman, if that is the case. There is no justification for granting more or fewer rights on the basis of ethnicity alone. Economic classifications should be used to improve the lot of those at the bottom of the heap. Laws should be formulated accordingly and positive discrimination can be employed if necessary. But economic upliftment cannot be based on ethnic rights.
It is crucial to interpret ILO Convention No.169 in the light of Nepal's context. Nepal is the only country in South Asia that has ratified this treaty. Nations that have similar or more ethnic diversity than in Nepal such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Bangladesh have not ratified this treaty. The treaty specifies that indigenous peoples should be granted the right to preserve their culture, traditions and religion. But it does not allow for the granting of rights to indigenous peoples in such a way that would impinge on the rights of others.
The misinterpretation of ILO Convention No.169, which has spread misinformation and exacerbated problems in Nepal, is due in part to the activities of foreign organisations. This becomes clear if you look at, for instance, a July 20 report produced by UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya, who visited Nepal recently. In his report, exploitative and anti-poor systems of collective land ownership such as 'kipat' are praised as upholding ethnic rights and recommended for reinstation. On the other hand, the world-renowned community forestry programs of Nepal have been criticised, as well as national parks that have been instrumental in preserving global ecological treasures. Such reports are one-sided, interventionist and unseemly.
Natural resources are a nation's wealth and must be used for the common good of the nation. We should not agree to meeting the unreasonable demands that local communities have placed upon government, as the Helmus of Melamchi, the residents of Sisdole or of Chilime have done. The good of the nation cannot be compromised in the name of ethnic rights. We must not forget that no part of Nepal can survive independently.