Federalism for What?

Federalism is not without critics. I am not against the concept of federalism, but I getting more critical about the way it is being handled by the mainstream political parties as a panacea to conflict in Nepal.

Nov. 27, 2015, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol 09, No 10,November 27,2015 (Mangsir, 11,2072)

Federalism is not without critics. I am not against the concept of federalism, but I getting more critical about the way it is being handled by the mainstream political parties as a panacea to conflict in Nepal. Today, federalism is being followed in both developed and developing countries, home to over 40% of world's population. Federalism has been adopted in post-conflict environments in Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Sudan and South Africa, and now in Nepal. Federalism was introduced in Nepal at the forefront of the issue of state restructuring without discussion and debate, perhaps in all good faith. However, the post-constitution crisis compels the people to question whether federalism would transform the conflict or transform the country itself in the hands of vested interests.

Federalism is the sharing of power between national, province and local governments.  In post-conflict Nepal, federalism was introduced to build an inclusive nation by addressing longstanding grievances of the poor and oppressed people. However, federalism issue divided the Constituent Assembly till the end of the promulgation of the new constitution, and now it is dividing the people. Throughout, the arguments have focused on number and delineation of federal units. There have been hardly any discussion at the political level on local development, territorial integrity and national identity. This raises a serious question whether we are heading toward centralized provincial federalism, weak common identity and potential break-up.

Let us forget about the party-less Panchayat era (1962-1990) when the people power was seen as a threat to the then regime. After the 1990 political changes, the political parties had immense opportunity to work together to devolve authority and powers to the local people. In real sense, it did not happen. In my analysis, the centre right political forces (mainly Nepali Congress) at the national level, the centre left political forces (mainly CPN-UML) at the local level and later the ultra-left political forces (CPN-Maoists) complicated the implementation of the Local Self-Governance Act during the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, devolution in Nepal could not advance as expected. Truly, it is not the case that unitary model has failed. Columbia, Italy and Japan have relatively strong regional governments. France, Peru and Indonesia are moving towards significant devolution to elected regional governments. The United Kingdom has devolved considerable powers to the Scottish Parliament. I am not advocating for unitary regime. What we need to understand from the world examples is that there was every possibility for devolved unitary regime in Nepal.

Now we have a secular constitution with seven-province federal structure that will replace 75 administrative districts. I am still of the opinion that the provinces with north-south line, comprising the mountains, hills and terai are best suited for Nepal from economic and security perspectives. I strongly believe that the integrated provinces can provide immense opportunities for local governments to become more autonomous and inclusive in character.  Further, local governments can better support rural-urban linkages for balanced economic growth which is much needed for youth employment. There is more to discuss and debate on the pros and cons of federal delineation.

At this point, I would like to talk little more about the post-federal constitutional crisis following the main demand of the Madhes-based parties to redraw the federal boundaries. For several years, Madhesis have been advocating for a separate state for themselves. Madhes-based parties, Tharus and other indigenous groups have expressed dissatisfaction against the proposed delineation of provinces. Madhesis want two states, both of which consist of only flat plains without hilly regions. However, Tharus are totally against two federal provinces in the terai region. Other indigenous groups are largely demanding self-governance. 

Expressing its discontent with the new constitution, India wants Nepal to carry out seven amendments in the new constitution, though unofficially, which has a clear indication on redrawing federal boundaries. Will Tharus and other indigenous groups remain silent after the negotiation with Madhesis backed by India?  They would also be violent demanding redraw of the federal boundaries.  What would then the government do?

Whether it's Madhesis or Tharus or indigenous groups or anyone backed by internal or external vested interests, we should be extremely careful that federalism doesn't compromise our sovereignty, territorial integrity and national identity. The national government must be stronger than provincial governments and the local governments must not be subjected to the provincial governments in the spirit of devolved authority, downward accountability and inclusive development.

We do not want seven Kathmandus in the provinces to dictate local governments nor we can tolerate any potential disintegration of the country and people. During negotiations, attention must be paid to historical factors, geographic factors, economic factors, and social and ethnic factors, as well as the existence of excluded groups within and between federal structures. Inclusive state and inclusive development should remain as the common agenda in state restructuring negotiations which was the root cause of the violent conflict Nepal.  This is the only way to achieve long-term political stability, inclusive growth and positive change. 

Dr. Manandhar is an expert of international development. Currently, he is working as Country Director of The Lutheran World Federation. He is also a visiting faculty at the Kathmandu University.

He can be reached at prabin.manandhar11@gmail.com

Dr. Prabin Manandhar

Dr. Prabin Manandhar

Dr. Manandhar is an expert of international development. Currently, he is working as Country Director of The Lutheran World Federation. He is the Former Chair of the Association of International NGOs in Nepal (AIN). He is also a visiting faculty at the Ka

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