Months after constitution due, still nobody understands ‘federalism’

The good ol’ UN and their timeliness

Analysis: Nepalis speak out on federalism

The debate on federalism in Nepal, and how to share political power and natural resources, has centred on the issue of recognizing ethnic groups. A constitution still remains to be written six years after a decade of civil war ended, but the Constituent Assembly, elected to draft a new constitution and function as a parliament, has been dissolved.

“[An] understanding of how to recognize identity, and how to balance diversity, is still unresolved. And what [does] identity mean… individual, group, or national?” asked Sapana Pradhan-Malla, a lawyer and ex-parliamentarian.

The devolution of power from Kathmandu, the capital, is another difficult issue. Nine out of 10 people live outside cities, and most are small-scale farmers. “If state restructuring is not properly planned, taking into account the distribution ofNepal’s natural resources, people will eventually be at each other’s throats,” said Ratna Sansar Shrestha, a water analyst affiliated to Kathmandu University.

In a survey published in May 2012, 73 percent of the 3,200 participants said federal units should not be ethnically based, 13 percent said they should, and another 14 percent either did not know or want to respond.

As party leaders try to forge a consensus government to continue the debate on state restructuring – three months after parliament disbanded – IRIN visited five of the country’s 75 districts to find out what people understand by federalism.

Gopal Dawadi, 35, who owns a small grocery shop in Chitwan District, 200km southwest of Kathmandu.

“Federalism is good for the country but should not be based on ethnicity because it is a dangerous issue to build states based on one’s ethnicity. We have over 100 ethnic groups, and what if every ethnic and caste group wants their own state? How will the nation deal with such a situation?

“The main problem is that this issue has not been clearly explained to ordinary people, who are the ones who will be victims of misunderstanding. The issue of ethnic-based federalism has to be [explained] to the mass[es], and that has unfortunately not happened yet. So far, the issue has been confined to political debates, and the politicians and journalists have done [a] very poor job in communicating with the people.

“They have not interacted with them at all on such a sensitive subject. I am high-caste and I am aware that our society is yet to become equal among all ethnic groups, but that does mean we have to take such [a] drastic decision of [dividing] our country… into ethnic states?”

Mira Majhi, 27, in Dang District, 400km southwest of Kathmandu

“I believe that we [should] rebuild our nation with the concept of federal states based on our ethnicities. This is very important for oppressed ethnic groups. Federalism gives us a chance to make our society equal in every way in education, economy, political participation and representation in the government.

“The high-caste community is worried because of their assumption that they will be evicted from the new federal states. The fact is that they are afraid of losing their power that they have been enjoying for hundreds of years.

“The political leaders have a responsibility to explain to all Nepali people that this will never divide the nation. Instead, it will unite our country, which has been always divided based on one group’s dominance in every sector, and that being the high castes.

“They should be more open minded, but it depends on how the political leaders will guide them, and until now are only misleading them. We hope that federalism will also create a new society that treats women equal [to] men, and not as second-class citizens.”

Ramesh Jha, 36, a farmer in Sunsari District, 500 km southeast of Kathmandu

“We have always been brainwashed by the leaders and misused by our leaders. They have acted so irresponsibly towards their citizens who are now very sceptical of them. If you look at the issue of federalism – they have done such a poor job of educating people on its concepts. In fact, they have not even met the ordinary people to ask their views on federalism.

“There are many in this country who are really scared to even talk about ethnic-based federalism because we still don’t know the details of how a federal state will be like, what will be the norms and rules.

“Instead, there are many politicians and their leaders who often make people nervous by saying that the restructuring of the state, based on federalism, will only divide the country and cause ethnic war. It is time that they went to the villages and educate the people first, and get their vote on whether they want federalism or not. They cannot decide for the whole Nepali population by sitting in their party offices.”

Purna Pakhrin, 36, a livestock trader Kavre District, 80km southeast of Kathmandu

“I don’t even know what federalism means. The federalism activists from Kathmandu should come and explain to us in detail. I have just heard about a Tamang [ethnic group] state but I don’t even know whether to support or oppose it, because what I can say when I don’t even understand its purpose?

“Will it make our lives better? Will my children have free education? Will we have water in our villages? Will we have jobs in the villages? Will it make women’s status better? I only have too many questions which I have been asking for a long time but nobody comes to explain.

“Instead, we have these political leaders coming to our villages only when they need votes. They come and organize mass meetings, delivering very angry speeches. I only hear them insulting each other’s political parties. So I will not support federalism until I really get educated about it. My high-caste neighbours are my friends, and they always tell me that they are really worried about it.”

Dhruba Nepali, 35, a farmer in Sindhupalchok District, 100km northeast of Kathmandu

“For so long, and even until now, we Dalits have been suppressed and discriminated [against] by the high castes.

“I don’t know much about federalism, but I know this will be a big political change for the low-caste community and I really support federalism. I have a little education on federalism, which I understood when I went to the capital city and I learnt that this new federal system will finally unite the country by ending all forms of discrimination.

“We will finally be able to run our own state, even if it is run by a certain ethnic group. If I have to live under other ethnic groups who will administer the state, then the situation will be better for many marginalized groups.

“If we continue with the same old system then there is no hope, because even after being ruled under so many democratic parties, they never helped to end discrimination. People in Kathmandu think that discrimination against Dalits has ended. They should come to my village and see the reality.”

A recent UN publication notes that the debate, at times violent, over how to restructure the country has largely overlooked “the relationship between the states and the centre, the form of governance within the provinces, or even the rights of various populations within these proposed states.”

A Nepali constitutional lawyer and UN consultant on a constitution-building project, Budhi Karki, told IRIN the federalist debate delaying the constitution is only one hurdle in state-building.

“People have been heavily obsessed about things to put into the constitution, but my concern is whether promises will materialize. Implementation is the challenge.”

UN report: Federalism Discourse in three districts in the Eastern Region

From IRIN >

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