Across ethnic lines

Ethnic federalism defies the principles of democracy, efficiency, and inclusiveness.

The zeal that Nepali people show for rightful recognition in the upcoming constitution is commendable; such alertness and agility make a nation strong. Unfortunately, people’s grand vision — mutual respect across all ethnicities — has been high-jacked by activists who started a destructive debate on which group was in Nepal from time immemorial, what the chronological order of settlement is, and why one should have more rights than others.

In history, Nepali people have shown remarkable courage. This might be the time to be courageous again, as it requires boldness to be mindful of one’s unique beam of identity while acclaiming the rainbow of diversity in the neighbourhood. People must rise above ethnicity, caste, language, religion, and region to uphold the pillars of federation — the provinces — that are multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, a natural construct for a country where communities are amazingly intermingled.

Ethnic and language groups

According to the 2011 Census, ethnic-caste wise, there are 118 groups and language-wise, there are 116 groups. If we take a population share of 1 percent as a cut-off point, there are 13 ethnic-caste groups above the threshold, representing 81 percent of the country’s population, and 14 mother tongues, capturing 93 percent of the population. Using one of those two criteria — whichever captures the larger number of population — there are six ethnic groups (mostly) in the hills (Magar, Tamang, Newar, Rai, Gurung, and Limbu) and five language groups (Maithili, Tharu, Bhojpuri, Bajika, and Avadhi) in the Tarai above the threshold.

The proponents of ethnic federalism want to base federation on these 11 groups, similar to the 10-province proposal put forward by the High Level State Restructuring Commission (HLSRC) in the first Constituent Assembly. The Commission had proposed six provinces in the hills (one for each group), two provinces in the Tarai by combining (no reasons why) five language groups, and adding two more provinces in regions where the presence of these 11 groups is negligible.

A federation that does not follow ethnic lines would deny the identity of Nepali people, the argument goes. However, on the contrary, in Nepal’s case, where there are 118 ethnicities, acclaiming the rainbow of identities can certainly not be achieved by enshrining a chosen few in the constitution. The state of federalism will be stronger if it is based on economic, not ethnic, rationale.

Countries like Belgium, Canada, India, and Switzerland have some elements of both territory and ethnicity as bases of federalism . Three fundamental principles, not the singular birth-identity, are the rationales for doing so. One ethnicity (language group) is in overwhelming majority in a province — principle of democracy; provinces are large and viable economic regions without many common resources to share with others — principle of economic efficiency; and a majority of the target group inhabits the targeted province — principle of inclusion.

Keeping democracy intact

The mosaic of Nepal’s population is so diverse that to create provinces along ethnic lines, let alone ethnic provinces — which would also mean self-determination with a right to autonomy for a group — one would have to defy all these three principles.

First, the 11 groups that are recognised as bases for provinces represent only 53 percent of the country’s population (24 percent from hill groups and 29 percent from Tarai groups). Brahmin and Chhetri (BC) — with 32 percent, the largest group of the country’s population — Dalits (13 percent), and about 100 other ethnic groups are entirely neglected. Among the six hill groups, only three are in majority in one district each whereas BC alone are in majority in 20 districts.

A similar situation emerges with the linguistic aspect. People with Nepali mother tongue constitute 45 percent of the population, and they are in majority in 39 districts, whereas the eleven language groups are in majority in 13 districts only. Furthermore, even in the presence of 10 provinces, in most cases, the population share of a group in its ’own province’ will be less than one-third. Another two-thirds would be people from the other groups, BC, Dalits, and so on. Where are the democratic norms here?

Make no mistake; no federation has been successful where basic democracy has failed.

More tellingly, this approach does not provide political inclusion even to the 11 target groups. As the settlement is widely distributed across several districts, about 42 percent of them would be residents in others’ provinces. We would be left with a paradox where an overwhelming majority — including those from the 11 groups — would be living in ‘others’ land. Is this something to aspire to?

An inevitable outcome of forming 10 provinces is that some of the provinces would be enviable not only in terms of population size but also in terms of the constraints they face in shared resource ownership. For example, in the HLSRC proposal, the sum of the population of the five smallest provinces is less than that of the biggest province alone.

Five provinces

However, there is a way to recognise each group and form provinces upholding democratic, inclusive, and efficiency principles. For that, I assign all 75 districts into one of the 11 groups, depending on whichever group has the largest share of population in the district (the group might still be smaller than BC). Then, I pull together all districts that fall into each of these 11 groups and call that area that group’s focus region. By construct, in all districts within a focus region, the same of the 11 groups will be the largest. Then, I combine two or three such focus regions, covering the Tarai and the hills, to form five provinces on a north-south axis, all bordering both India and China. Except for six districts, all districts of a focus region are geographically connected. For the six exceptions, I use the logic of river basins.

Based on that procedure, the easternmost province, Sagarmatha, consists of 14 districts (see map). It includes the eastern three districts along with the Rai and Limbu focus regions. The second, Janaki province, combines the Mithila, Newar, and Tamang focus regions with a total of 14 districts. The third, Gandak province with 12 districts, includes Bajika, Bhojpuri, and Gurung focus regions. With 18 districts, the fourth, Lumbini province, includes Nawalparasi, Rupandehi, Dang, the Avadhi speaking, and Magar focus regions. The far west province, Karnali with 17 districts, includes the Tharu focus region and the western hills where Doteli and Baitedeli are mother tongues of the majority in a few districts.

This approach follows the democratic principle, as the provinces are formed among multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic groups and there is no feeling of exclusion to any group. More importantly, compared to the HLSRC approach, this five-province model is more inclusive, in a sense that more than three-quarters of the population of each of the 11 groups will live within the same province. Also, these five provinces will have a more or less even population distribution, ranging from 16 percent in the far west to 25 percent in the Janaki province. And it certainly provides a better economic framework, as I reasoned in an earlier article in this newspaper (‘Economy first,’ September 29, Page 6).

Having seen extreme exclusion throughout history, it comes as no surprise that some people genuinely consider ethnic federalism a solution. However, not only ethnic federalism would not be able to correct the course, it would also impose an additional burden. It would take Nepal onto the slippery slope of social conflict, elite entitlements, political rent-seeking, and economic ruin. The past was ugly indeed, but we should not overshoot; reasoning should prevail over sentiment.

This article was originally published in The Kathmandu Post on Friday 31 October 2014.
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