28 Aug - 3 Sep 2015 #773

The federalisation folly

Nepal's unique geography will deliver only as an integrated whole, not as fragmented enclaves
Bihari K Shrestha
The killings in Kailali on 24 August, the arson, riots and paralysing protests that have brought large parts of the country to a halt for nearly a month could be signs of worse to come if this foolhardy federalisation idea is not abandoned.

Nepal’s geography and ethnic mosaic is too unique and intertwined and is not suited for federal fragmentation. The current seven province model is bad enough, but dividing them along ethnic lines would be even worse. Nepal’s topography can yield huge benefits to its people and lift living standards, but only if the plains, hills and mountains are an integrated whole. Whoever thought of cutting Nepal into pieces that don’t respect river watersheds did not have Nepal’s long-term economic interest at heart.

Take the example of the 750 MW West Seti Hydroelectric Project in Doti district in western Nepal that is being projected to be built with Chinese investment. Its 195m high dam would submerge 2,166ha including 619ha of agricultural land and would displace 16,221 people in Doti, Dadeldhura, Baitadi and Bajhang. Its reservoir, however, would release 90 cumecs of regulated water in the dry season to irrigate 270,000ha for non- paddy cultivation and 90,000ha for rice in downstream districts of Bardia, Kailali and Kanchanpur. The plant would generate an average of 3,636 GWh of energy, yielding a revenue of Rs 15 billion annually.

However, with the proposed federalisation of the country, the hill districts of one province would be submerged and people displaced while its benefit would accrue to downstream provinces. In all likelihood, West Seti will be the first casualty of the mindless attempt of breaking up the country artificially in the name of federalisation. It is possible that the Chinese would just find it too politically complicated and pull out.

Nepal's unique ethnography is made up of 125 caste/ethnic groups who mostly live in densely mixed rural settlements. There isn’t a community which is not inhabited by at least half a dozen different caste/ethnicities living together with shared membership in forest user groups, mothers' groups and perma traditional labour exchanges.

Even though the Maoists misled the Magar people promising them priority rights in a future Magarat Province, Nepali ethnic groups live in such intermixed settlements that no one group can claim more rights than others. Nepal's tragedy is that we let a bunch of bloodthirsty revolutionaries use ethnicity to recruit fighters as cannon fodder to propel themselves to power.

It is even more tragic that other so-called ‘democratic’ parties, disgraced by their own malgovernance and corruption had never even suggested the possible federalisation of the country before they gave in to the Maoists' blackmail. After dragging their feet on the constitution for the past seven years, the NC, UML and the UCPN(M) aided and abetted by Forum Loktantrik of the Tarai opportunistically seized post-earthquake disarray to quickly come up with a constitution of sorts by shelving intractable federalisation and get on with a new power sharing arrangement. Their eyes were on the billions of dollars that they expected to pour into the country for post-earthquake reconstruction.

The 16-point deal of 8 June would have been a quick way out of the federalisation conundrum once and for all. But once again, it was messed up after Nepali leaders were summoned to new Delhi one by one and came back with instructions to include federal demarcation in the constitution. They proceeded to do just that, and all hell broke loose.

By any definition and provisions in the Interim Constitution, President Ram Baran Yadav remains the last hope as supreme commander of the armed forces in safeguarding Nepal’s unity and integrity. He knows that Nepal's geography and the ethnic diversity will never allow meaningful federalisation. The President should also bear in mind that, even in the hopeless context of utter mismanagement of state affairs during the last several decades of Westminster style democracy in Nepal, the fact remains that Nepal has made enormous gains in grassroots action by devolving decision-making to local groups.

Therefore, what Nepal needs is not federalisation, but all-out devolution of authority to communities at the grassroots. Our hopes rest with the President to step in for the country’s long-term national interest. Otherwise President Yadav will go down in history as someone who wasted his incumbency and laid the groundwork for the nation’s disintegration. It is not too late.

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