If there is one thing that could be learnt from the busting of the constitution deadline, it is this: our discourse on federalism was grossly inadequate and its definition too fluid. It’s okay to leave the perception of things like “beauty” to the eyes of the beholder but it shouldn’t have been okay to do that for “federalism”, which can only be understood in fairly concrete terms. Yet, that is exactly what happened to our treatment of the term “federalism” during the past four years of constitution-making. Its meaning was left to the eyes of the beholder. Federalism could mean anything to anybody and nobody had a problem with it.
Anyone could carry a personalized definition of federalism in their pockets. So it was not long before federalism erroneously morphed into the idea of territorialism—the practice of marking and defending one’s territory. Territorialism is not federalism. There is no connection. The 14-state proposal, with states bearing “ethnic” labels, would have injected the venom of territorialism in the name of federalism and this would have severely undermined the benefits of federalism. Let’s consider how territorialism operates. A tiger in Chitwan’s jungle marks its territory too (by urinating on strategic tree trunks, I might add). But the tiger’s territory-marking is more dignified than the Maodesi proposal of “ethnic-federalism” because the tiger has a purpose.
The tiger needs to be territorial. It has no choice. It has to ward off other tigers that wander into its range and eat the deer it could have eaten. In fact, if a tiger is not territorial, it will soon become skinny and die. For the tiger, territorialism is survival. For Maodeshi, if one is to believe the rationale offered, territorialism is shockingly less purposeful—it’s a “feel good” thing. Maodeshi constituents “feel good” if the provinces are given ethnic labels. This “feel good” factor may appear harmless at the surface. But for an undertaking as grand the Constitution, it needs more than just a passing thought. This is because territorialism, once sanctioned, ends up being the kind exercised by the tiger; there is no other way for it to exist. It won’t be long before the territory-marker will start defending it. The perception of who belongs on the marked territory and who doesn’t will sharpen, reservation of opportunities (the deer) for the territory-marker will become normal, and intruders will be warded off. And with 90 languages spoken in Nepal, there will be plenty of “intruders” in any of the 14 states, no matter how you slice it. Of course, a full-blown territorialism will take a few years to ripen, but ripen it will, if sanctioned.
“Ethnic-federalism” is a valid expression of outrage stemming from past injustices, but it is not federalism. And, although it may sound convoluted, only a “non-ethnic” federalism has the best chance of redressing these past injustices. Once the hyphen-free, basic federalism, is adopted, it will present a united front to everyone within a designated province to wield decentralized power and plan their own destiny. A province fragmented by territorialism cannot present itself as a regional economic unit to wield such power. This will be to the detriment of the very groups that have felt excluded in the past.
Federalism can be customized to every country’s situation, but let’s not lose sight of what 90 percent of it constitutes (the “Hatthi” portion that passed before the “Pucchar” got stuck). Wherever federalism is practiced, there is not that much controversy about its core benefits. It will be sad if Nepal is not able to reap the benefit of federalism due to Maodeshi shortsightedness in potentially igniting a powder keg of ethnic conflicts.
Federalism is the devolution of a nation-state’s power to provincial governments such that provincial governments can decide more things for themselves. Matters of policy that affect residents of a province are best left to the provinces because they are in a much better position to decide what works and what doesn’t. In India, people living in northern Punjab decided that the plains-based policy does not work well in the mountains. So they seceded from the Punjab and formed Himachal Pradesh (HP). Then HP got the chance to set its own priorities. With fixed money it could spend every five years, it chose to build the roads first and then worry about electrification. If HP was part of Punjab, it had to live by Punjab’s priorities. Maybe (for example), it would have grudgingly accepted the budget handed out for electrification, knowing that its pressing need was for the roads that could open up market for its apples, vegetables, flowers. But because HP was a state, it did not have such dilemmas; it used the money for the roads before electricity. Today, HP is prosperous primarily because its horticulture took off—thanks to federalism and thanks to prioritization of roads over electrification.
When I visited HP long time back, I was told that the workers in apple orchards and vegetable fields came from Western Nepal. Moreover, they came from the parts of Nepal where the climate and the terrain were very similar to that of the fields and orchards they worked. So theoretically, they did not need to sell their labor in HP; they could have grown apples and vegetable in their own lands. But they could not because their homeland did not have one thing HP had—“self-rule” and, by extension, their ability to insist first on “roads”. The squabble over ethnic labels is denying the migrant farmers—of all ethnic groups—their chance control the budget and allocate their own on building access roads to sell their own apples. Roads over electricity is just one example. Federalism would provide the autonomy in decision making for many other things which would speed up development at provincial and local levels.
Federalism also means revenue sharing. Not all states will be as lucky and wise as HP in India, some will need help. In a non-federal Nepal, the central development region’s share of GDP was 42% while that of mid and far-western regions combined was only 18%. Once federalism is implemented, a mechanism to share the revenue generated will also be mandated, and central government will have to give more money to weaker provinces to prop them up. Here too, the mid and far-western people are missing out…if the squabble over ethnic labels continues and territorialism prevails.
Federalism is a good idea. Let’s make it happen without sanctioning territorialism.