Friday, September 4, 2009

Federalism is fraught with potential failure

Jumping the gun

The elected Constituent Assembly is supposed to write constitution. But we jumped the gun. The commission tasked to write the interim constitution declared the country a federal republic before CA members had a chance to debate its merits.

We need to step back and take a fresh look at the problems involved, not least because the commission doesn’t have the right to preempt the popularly elected CA.

For one, the proposed ethnic federalist model impinges on a citizen’s right to equal access to national resources since it grants communities special rights to provincial forests, mines, rivers and so forth. This pits communities directly against one another since it encourages them to undercut one another’s rights.

The recent cold-blooded murder of 7 yarshagumba harvesters from Gorkha by a local community in Manangi prefigures the devastating consequences a federal arrangement could have. It could also set off a wave of internal migration and displacement, as we’ve already seen in the Tarai.

Second, the proposal to entitle particular ethnic groups to the exclusive leadership of particular provinces could take the country down the Yugoslavia path. Take the proposed Newa province in Kathmandu Valley. Since only 45 per cent of the valley is Newari, the majority will perpetually be led by a minority. If the valley’s 11 adjoining districts were included in the province, then 25 percent would rule the rest. This will also require the government to split up territory that many groups claim, which could set off race riots.

Third, federalism will be very costly since it will create many more high offices of state to be filled with pompous personalities. We already have a president who likes stopping traffic when he’s on the road, and a trouble-making vice president who puts even our ex-crown prince to shame. Federalism will elevate more people like this to the posts of governors and ministers at the provincial level. The question is: do taxpayers really want to shoulder this extra administrative burden?

Finally, federalism in itself won’t accomplish what it sets out to do: empower ethnic and marginalized communities. The unitary structure at the provincial level will continue to leave some groups out of power. It will add one more layer of politicos to the bureaucracy who will leach off money that’s supposed to help people. Already, less than half of the money slated for development work actually reaches the people. Provincial federalism could exacerbate this tendency. Instead, we should devolve power to the grassroots level and skirt the provinces. This way, there will be less corruption and greater representation.

Federalism has its merits, of course, but it’s dangerous at the doses we’re recommending. The right medicine, at the right time, at the right level will work. No more, no less.

We need to discuss federalism in more detail and rejecting it doesn’t mean less representation. Take the demand for a Newa province as an example once more. If one is to look around, many of the major cultural celebrations of Nepal are based on Newa culture. Similarly, what is famed as Nepali architecture is actually Newa architecture. Therefore it is in the Newa interest to ensure that our motherland, Nepal, doesn’t disintegrate due to problems with the proposed federal structure.

Newa identity is like a fish that will not survive outside water, in this case, our motherland. The same could be said of all of Nepal’s ethnicities, scattered as they are across the country. It is just not worthwhile to split this country along ethnic lines.

Published in Nepali Times # 467 (4-10 September 2009)

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