Federalism and Tarai-Madhes

From The Kathmandu Post (18 July, 2014)

Madhesis must have unchallenged access to wealth of the hills by being part of the same federal province

The definition of Nepal as a federal country is at the heart of the challenges before the current Constituent Assembly (CA), which is a sovereign entity to debate and decide on any model. The citizenry only hopes that CA members will go about their work without feeling pressured by any quarter that is unaccountable to the Nepali citizens of the plains, mid-hills and mountains.

Any formula of delineation that is freely and openly discussed in the House should be acceptable to one and all, be it provinces based on identity, one-or-two Madhes, north-south or economic-geography. But it is important not to design a ‘faux’ or ceremonial federalism , and ensure provinces that promise economic optimality, good governance and prosperity for inhabitants.

It has been generally understood since the time of CA-1 that Beijing dislikes the idea of ethnicity -based units in the mountains, apparently linked to a fear of identity politics sparking in Tibet. Meanwhile, New Delhi’s preference is said to veer towards a ‘one-or-two-Madhes-pradesh’ formula, perhaps having to do with security concerns linked to the open border.

Altitudinal federalism

The divide on federalism is between those seeking provinces according to economic geography and others who favour demarcation by identity. The former want provinces that unite the hills and plains to provide economic synergy and growth. Many Janajati and Madhesi activists, on the other hand, insist that only identity-based federalism can free their communities from the historical grip of Kathmandu’s ruling castes and classes.

With the demand for ethnicity -based provinces having become somewhat muted lately, the focus has shifted to the demand for Tarai-based province(s), through implementation of what can only be called a kind of ‘altitudinal federalism ’. Faced with strident populism, sceptics of the plains-only formula among the Madhesi community fell silent long ago. Meanwhile, Kathmandu’s weakling national politicians exhibit little loyalty to the voiceless of the plains.

It is noteworthy that the demand for the Tarai-Madhes pradesh idea has not subsided even after the November 2013 elections, which was a referendum of sorts on the federalism debate. The voters indicated preference for provinces based on economic geography by giving the moderate Nepali Congress (NC) and CPN-UML parties nearly two-thirds majority in the CA. The Maoist and Madhesbadi parties, backers of identity-based federalism , were routed.

And yet, the NC and UML have not been able to act on the strength given to them by the citizens. Speak to CA members from the two parties—even those proposing themselves as alternatives to the old and tired leadership—and they moan fatalistically, “The pressure for Madhes-based federalism is too strong, we have no choice.” This constitutes abandonment of the voters, including the Tarai citizens, who (according to this writer) stand to lose the most from provinces restricted to the plains.

These same CA members suggest lamely, “We can always amend the constitution.” That is a pipe dream, because when you create unequal provinces, the ones better endowed will resist reversal and you will have planted seeds for long-term discord.

A place at the table

The Madhesi people have been historically disadvantaged, both through economic marginalisation and their exclusion from national identity, which developed historically as hill-centric. Even as the Madhesi people have succeeded in demanding their place on the table as equal citizens following the Madhes Aandolan of early 2007, we are creating conditions where they will lose access to the resources of the hills, to which they have a right as citizens.

Indeed, the question arises, whether federalism in either the hills or the plains should be constructed according to the cruel reality of historical exclusion, or whether it should serve the goals of ensuring material prosperity to communities neglected by history. The federal formula that is chosen will either create conditions for balanced development or it will establish ceremonial units to benefit provincial elites and impoverish the poorest.

The argument of the ‘Madhesbadi’ leaders is that only separate provinces can extricate Madhesis from Kathmandu’s (upper caste) hill domination. One or two Tarai-based provinces would allow Madhesis to run their own affairs while wielding more influence on the national stage.

This argument is certainly worth pondering but research shows that the closer you go to the Indian border, southward from the East-West Highway, the weaker the local economy and the poorer the people. The prosperity seems to flow all the way south only when there are arteries leading to the Indian border, as in Biratnagar, Bhairahawa and Birganj. This does seem to indicate a need for hill-plain integration, especially at a time when north-south highways are finally connecting formerly neglected areas of the Tarai.

Prosperity as a right

Logic would demand that the delineation of federal provinces begin only after the inter-relationships between the Centre and (such a number of) provinces are decided, as well as the division of responsibilities over administration, fiscal matters, natural resources and ‘equalisation’ (stronger provinces having to subsidise weaker ones). In Nepal, the attempt is to define the provinces in a rush, with the likelihood of faulty configurations and long-term recrimination.

With the largest volume and density of poverty in the country to be found in Madhesi-inhabited areas, it is vital that federalism holds out the promise of both political and economic emancipation to Madhesis. However, the economic rationale for one or two Tarai-only provinces has not been spelt out—everything seems to have to do with the protection of identity. The matter is also complicated by the refusal of all Tharu and plains Muslims to accept the ‘Madhesi’ identity, and by the presence of a large population of the Pahadiya in the plains.

This writer’s argument is that the people of the plains must have automatic access to the wealth of the hills by being part of the same province—which may or may not reach all the way to the northern border. While there is agriculture in the Tarai, a large human resources base and great possibilities for industrialisation and processing, these alone will not deliver sufficiently improved livelihoods for the massive number of the Tarai poor. We must ensure that the promised bounty of the hills and mountains—through agro-forestry, herbs, tourism, hydropower, service industries, stored water for irrigation, entrepot trade (vis-à-vis China/Tibet), etc—is available to the people of the plains as a right.

Silent opportunism

The absence of heavy resistance from Pahadiya politicians to the Tarai-only province proposal also provides a whiff of opportunism. With having to share less of their wealth with the much larger population of the Tarai, the mountain-hill inhabitants could become hugely wealthy in separation. Indeed, some Kathmandu politicians may be harbouring visions of achieving the per capita wealth of Bhutan, which has mountains but almost no Tarai.

As far as New Delhi’s evident interest in Tarai-only province(s) is concerned, linked to national security concerns, there may be a desire to create a buffer region along the open border. Beyond the fact that this could be construed as belittling the Madhesi people, a better option would be to demand enhanced cooperation from Nepal to prevent infiltration of third-country militants and other threats, if that is the worry. This could be done through various means, including through an extradition treaty to tackle the problem rather than the ‘informal’ procedures of today. If the idea is to develop a barrier vis-à-vis supposed Chinese influence in Nepal, this would be short-sighted as it may serve to bring such influence down to the doorstep.

Whichever way one looks at it, it becomes clear that the federalism debate has not done justice to the geopolitical, political, economic and communitarian interests within Nepal. It is also evident that the ongoing debate suffers in the absence of open discussion among the political class and civil society elsewhere, including New Delhi.

A prosperous Tarai is good for the plains people of Nepal and will also provide an economic boost to the highly populated and marginalised border regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. A mistake in constructing our federalism would hurt state and society on both sides.

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