Development regions as statesThe possibility has been virtually lost during the political uncertainties of the past decade
I have seen many commenting on social media that Nepal’s five development regions (DRs) would have been the best units of states to constitute the federal provinces. I have also heard a few opinion makers, political thinkers, and politicians stating that the recognition of the five DRs would have been the best solution for the country’s federalisation. These opinions prompted me to start a media debate on the retrospective and prospective aspects of DRs being used as the units of our federal structure. I am giving my opinion and I invite studied reaction from the concerned audience. I have not seen much interest among the major party leaders. But it would be of public interest for the leaders to express their views in the media.
There would have been an enormous chance of success if the five development regions had been converted to the units making up our federal structure at the initial stage of transition. There were several positive factors: there was age-old communal harmony in our society; natural resources like water and ecosystem were almost evenly divided among the DRs; all three ecological divisions (mountains, hills and plains) were incorporated; and the burden of developing infrastructure to build just five capitals would have been manageable given our limited resources.
Although the DRs did not have an autonomous administrative structure, the geographic positioning had stimulated a natural regional identity. People and leaders were analysing their socio-economic problems vis-à-vis other regions, and comparing pros and cons. The level of development was gradually decreasing from east to west and the people and local leaders were pressuring for a reduction in these differences by allocating more financial assistance towards the western regions. If autonomous DRs had been introduced, there would have been greater mobilisation leading to increased participation in the regions’ development. But this was neither thought of during the royal rule nor afterwards, during the multi-party rule. During the royal rule, regional autonomy was construed to be a threat to the central authority emanating from the monarch. Devolution of power did not get any priority during the multi-party rule either. Under both regimes, only limited authority was delegated to the lower levels. But the concept of federalising Nepal did not develop among the political actors.
The concept of federalism was brought up by the Maoists, with the aim of destabilising the state by weakening the fabric of social harmony. Thus, the intention went against strengthening any institutions or procedures that would support the state. A weak state would fall victim to the Maoist insurgency. No other party had federalism on their agenda. A joint struggle was launched by the Maoist rebels and the other constitutionalist parties against the monarchy that brought the royal institution to an end. But federalisation was not a goal of the second popular movement either.
Federalism was introduced in the Interim Constitution as the future model of the democratic republic. But the proposed procedure was not followed. The provision of constituting a commission of experts to suggest a sustainable federal structure was put aside and the parties engaged in an endless debate on the federal model. If the commission of experts had been formed, there is a chance that the proposed states could have been created based on the availability and distribution of resources. In that categorisation, the existing DRs could have been used with some minor modifications. But the political parties and their leaders thought of other criteria for the states. The focus was on ethnic identity, which has played the greatest role not only in distorting the concept of federalisation, but also in creating political instability that is the root of Nepal’s present political trouble.
Some wrong notions exist regarding the concept of federalisation. The worst one is that of ethnic identity. Nepal is a multi-ethnic country where there are over 125 small and large ethnic communities. If the concept of ethnic identity is taken as the main criterion for forming provinces, there will have to be over 100 states or sub-states in our small country. If only large ethnic communities were selected, it would not be a satisfactory solution for the smaller ones. Even the large groups number over two dozen. The communities are not concentrated in one particular area. So creating ethnicity-based states would be tantamount to imposing the ways of one ethnic group over others.
Another problem of identity-based federalism is with the logic of languages. There are more than 100 languages spoken in different parts of Nepal. But there is no area where any particular language is the mother tongue of the majority of the people in that area. The third demand, made particularly by the Madhesi groups, is the creation of states on the basis of geographic identity. The main demand was the creation of one state in the whole of Tarai. This demand contradicts the ethnic and linguistic criteria because there are dozens of ethnic and linguistic communities in most regions. There is little connection between geographic and other criteria.
A new constitution was in the making which was clogging the whole political atmosphere. The Maoists did realise the impossibility of pursuing a plan of ethnic states, but the damage was already done. So they wanted to mend their ways by joining the two major parties that had taken control of the nation after the second constituent assembly elections. Together the three major parties wrote a new constitution with seven states and enforced it. One of these states consisted of a province in the Tarai separated from the hills. If the Madhesi groups had accepted this solution, the country’s politics would have taken its logical course and a federal structure would have taken a rough shape with all the institutions created as per the constitution. But they did not accept the constitution and imposed a prolonged bandh without providing a new political solution.
There is now little possibility of transforming the DRs into federal units for political and constitutional reasons. Politically, there is no chance of going back. Nepal must live with whatever structures the constitution has created and wait patiently for a favourable political climate when new forces might find ways to transform the federal structure. In terms of constitutional limitations, the Supreme Court has declared that there can be no amendment regarding changes in the boundaries of the proposed states until state legislatures are created through elections and new changes proposed. This remote possibility will also limit the desired changes in the given structure. The concept of five states consisting of the five development regions can be discussed with historical and academic interest only. The possibility has been virtually lost during the political uncertainties of the past decade.
Sharma is a political analyst