Federalism in Nepal: Benefits and Drawbacks

Professor Durga D. Poudel

As a continuation to the last article on “Viability of Federalism”, this article discusses some benefits and drawbacks of federalism in Nepal.  It is a fact that Nepal has many political and socio-economic issues including right to self determination; negligence of  ethnic, indigenous and common people;  lack of regional empowerment;  hunger and poverty;  and  decentralization. Many believe that federalism will be a panacea for all ills including the human rights, social injustice, and inequalities in Nepal.  On the other hand, the advocates of a unitary system with strong decentralization seriously question federalism with respect to its viability, costliness, social harmony, resource allocation, and  national integrity. In this context, it is important to assess the benefits and the drawbacks of federalism in order to take appropriate future course of political actions in Nepal. The following section discusses major benefits and drawbacks of federalism in Nepal.

Benefits of federalism.

The basic reason and motivation behind federalism is to put limits on the power of the central government to protect federal states against tyranny, and empower common people and provide opportunities for people’s full participation on economic, social, resource utilization, and other related agendas of  a federal state.  This system of governance is practiced largely by a nation that is born through the fusion of various nations. Another advantage of this system can be viewed as the enhancement of  opportunities for bottom-up planning with a better grasp of the local issues and concerns.  Also, each federal state can serve as a laboratory for different policies and programs.  Successful programs and policies from a federal state could be transferred to other states. Federalism corrects the problem of decentralization, and helps in formulating laws that are appropriate to a  region or a community. Through the process of enhanced people’s participation, formulation of appropriate policies and programs,  empowerment of communities, and decentralization, federalism is expected to help eradicate poverty, inequality, and social injustice in Nepal.  

Drawbacks of federalism

 In addition to its costliness, danger of national disintegration, role conflicts between the central and the state governments, the problem of equitable sharing of natural resources, and differences in educational, health, and other services among the states, the drawbacks of federalism in Nepal should also be viewed on the following four grounds:

 Ethnic and cultural recognition - Because the past system of governance had miserably failed to fully accommodate ethnic communities, minorities, women, and common people in governance and decision making, ethnic and indigenous groups in Nepal are looking for their recognition and are demanding their full participation in state affairs. As a result, voices are raised for ethnic/linguistic federalism or geographical/regional federalism in Nepal, and as a matter of fact, the federalism has already been included in the interim constitution. It is not difficult to understand how the geographical/regional federalism will fail to address the outcries of ethnic and indigenous communities in Nepal, as it will be basically the same model of governance except for the division into smaller groups.  On the other hand, it is also not difficult to visualize how ethnic/linguistic federalism will also fail to address the outcries of ethnic  groups.  Even if a region is declared an ethnic state on the basis of the plurality of an ethnic group, it is not  possible to address  cultural and ethnic issues and outcries of the rest of the ethnic groups in that state. To elaborate this issue further, let us say, for example, we declared a “Darai” state on the basis of the plurality of “Darai” population in a region, how is this newly formed “Darai” state going to address the ethnic and cultural recognition of other ethnic groups such as Gurung,  Magar, Dalit, Muslim, Kumal, Bote, Brahaman, Chettri, etc., living in this “Darai” state?  Here, although federalism has addressed the issue of the cultural recognition of “Darai” community, the issue of cultural recognition of other ethnic groups and communities has remained unaddressed. It is possible that while attempting to solve the problem of ethnic and cultural recognition through federalism, the Nepalese society may plunge even deeper into conflict and ethnic and cultural chaos in the future.  Whether federalism is the right tool to address the issue of ethnic recognition is certainly a big question.

Poverty alleviation – There is no evidence that federalism results in the alleviation of poverty. Some of the key measures of poverty alleviation include enterprise development, employment generation, community empowerment, strategic planning and development, natural resource conservation and utilization, education and skill development, infrastructural development, agricultural productivity enhancement, availability of finance and credit, appropriate rules and regulations, peace, and good governance.  While the problems of food security, employment generation, development of  basic infrastructures, and the prevalence of law and order in the nation require highly coordinated, focused, and united efforts, how will federalism address this urgent issue of poverty eradiation in Nepal is another big question.  Federalism has often been found to be a largely  inefficient system, especially in tackling national  issues and problems.

 Foreign intervention – Almost every political leader and political party in Nepal claims the occurrence of foreign interventions in Nepal’s internal matters and governance. In fact, the ex-Prime Minister, Mr. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, resigned from his post citing foreign intervention (foreign Pravus) and the existence of double-power in Nepal. Certainly, Nepal’s geopolitical setting, socio-economic conditions, political status, and international stature, is conducive for foreign intervention and pressures. How logical is it to go for federalism that undoubtedly opens up multiple access points for interest groups, lobbyists, and foreign interventionists? It is not difficult to visualize how quickly a central government could bend its knees in front of a foreign power when a few federal states jointly put pressure regarding a particular issue on the central government in Nepal.

Our sense of oneness and solidarity - Despite Nepal’s extremely  poor  transportation and communication infrastructures, rugged terrain, poor economy, large ethnic and linguistic diversity, and extremely isolated ethnic communities and population, Nepalese people have thus far enjoyed their unity amidst diversity, and have developed a strong sense of oneness and solidarity over the past 240 years.  Due to the latest information technologies and improving communication infrastructures, Nepalese from every ethnic community, geographic region, and linguistic group are coming together while appreciating their cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and geographic diversities. Strengthening of the sense of oneness and the building of solidarity among Nepalese citizens for the nation’s economic development and socio-economic transformation is continuously progressing.  Our collective spirit and harmony, sense of oneness and solidarity, our pride over ethnic and cultural diversity and geographical variations, as well as our belief and commitment on the sustainable utilization and the development of natural resources for economic revolution in Nepal are the pre-requisites and the foundations for the development of our nation, societies, and the preservation of our culture and traditions. How is federalism going to further cultivate and develop this sense of “oneness and solidarity” among us is yet another big question.

Every Nepalese has a historic responsibility of taking part in the discussion of federalism in Nepal and deciding a political discourse that not only shapes our values, norms, and beliefs, but also determines our  national integrity, prosperity, equity, pride, and social justice.

Dr. Poudel is a Professor and Head at the Department of Renewable Resources and a Fellow of the Center for Cultural and Eco-tourism at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Louisiana, U.S.A. Dr. Poudel was born in Tanahu, and received his B. Sc. Degree from Pakistan, M. Sc. From AIT Thailand, and Ph.D. from USA.

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