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Lose-lose situation

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Dividing Nepal in feuding feudal fiefdoms is not the solution, devolving power is

Bihari Krishna Shrestha

The federalisation debate in Nepal remains the most contentious, and paradoxically, also the most superficial. And from this week, it has also been accompanied by violence and terrorism.

The demand to turn Nepal into a federal state first surfaced in 1996 in just before the start of the war when the Maoists demanded ‘autonomous governments where ethnic communities are in the majority’.

In a country which is a dense mosaic of ethnic groups, the demand was clearly a war tactic to drive a wedge in the body politic, and to help boost recruitment. Ten years later, when the war ended and the Maoists made their triumphant return from India, the NC and the UML were in tatters. Discredited for fecklessness and corruption, they had to meekly give in to the Maoist demand for ethnicity-based federalisation.

The CA itself never implemented the provision in the interim constitution to set up a State Restructuring Commission, preferring to pretend that they were working on it themselves. Their frivolous and irresponsible attitude was on full public display at the 127th meeting of the CA’s State Restructuring and Power Redistribution Committee when the Maoists quickly undid the consensus of earlier meetings in just 30 minutes. They won over the seven UML members by agreeing to Sherpa and Mithila provinces, and outvoted what otherwise would have been a parallel proposal from the NC.

The State Restructuring Commission was formed hastily on deadline, filled mostly with party activists, and came up with a ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ reports without ever once talking to the people. The majority report itself included an absurd ‘non-territorial’ Dalit province, and excluded the earlier one for the Sherpa, possibly because the Commission was lead by a Dalit and did not include a Sherpa.

The biggest shortcoming, however, has been that these reports never looked into the fundamental issue of federalisation: how would it improve the lives of the people economically, socially and politically?

The neo-feudal politicians in the CA must acknowledge that in this intermixed ethnic country, few are asking for a federation, let alone one with specific ethnic groups as the new ruling class. Most people in Nepal suffer from acute food shortage and underemployment, they have to migrate to earn enough to feed their families. This requires unrestricted freedom of movement, which ethnic territories will restrict.

There are signs of things to come. Monday’s blast in Kathmandu was one. Two years ago, seven men from Gorkha were butchered in Manang for trespassing during yarsa harvesting. There has been attempted ethnic cleasning in the Tarai. Federalisation, if anything, is only going to raise communal friction among communities. No one wins, everyone loses.

Neo-feudalism and a blatant lack of transparency and accountability on the part of politicians at all levels has kept Nepal the poorest and the most misgoverned in the world. Despite this, we have some things to be proud of: the widely-applauded world class success of community forestry due to our demonstrated ability to restore severely depleted forests in just a decade or so (See: Nepali Times, # 593).

More recently, Nepal is ranked at the top among the handful of countries projected to meet the Millennium Development Goals in child survival and maternal mortality rate reduction. These dramatic success stories were the result of devolution of authority to organisations of beneficiaries themselves: Forest User Groups in the case of community forestry and the Mothers’ Groups in health.

The secret ingredient in both cases are that all members of these user groups (rich poor, men women, high caste low caste) effectively participate in decision-making, ensuring good governance, transparency and accountability.

Therefore, what Nepal needs today is extensive devolution of authority to the local communities, not breaking up of the country into what is most likely going to be feuding feudal fiefdoms.

Bihari Krishna Shrestha was with the National Planning Commission, and the ministries of health and physical planning and local development.

We know what works, #525

Ethnic autonomy, #319

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