Nepal creating a federal system for a brighter future
Article from the Global and Mail
KATHMANDU — The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Apr. 15, 2016 12:35PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Apr. 24, 2016 11:13AM EDT

Post-earthquake Nepal’s struggle to adopt Canadian-style federalism

Most federations, like Canada’s, result from separate units coming together. But what would it be like to go the other way: to take a centralized country – France, for example – and, without breaking it up, create a federation?
Inimaginable, the French would say. But Nepal – poor, corrupt, still reeling from devastating earthquakes that struck a year ago this month, divided by more languages, religions and ethnicities than many Canadians may imagine – is doing just that.
After two and a half centuries as a monarchy, or some other form of centralized state, it has become the world’s petri dish for federalism.
A decade of Maoist-inspired civil war that killed more than 17,000 people, plus endemic changes of elected governments, finally persuaded Nepal’s political parties that something new was needed. In a move born of desperation and fatigue, they agreed (which they don’t do often) to convene a constituent assembly. Rather amazingly, the assembly voted to give Nepal’s 28 million people a new federal constitution. The margin was 507 to 25, well above what was required to move forward.
Learning the federal ropes
To help Nepalis better understand their new form of government, Forum of Federations, an Ottawa-based agency dedicated to federalism, has been sending experts (and recently a journalist) to advise on everything from dividing power between levels of government, raising taxes and sharing resource revenues to revamping public administration and helping the press understand its role. Happily, the Nepali press is quite free. But journalists wonder how they should use this freedom to report and analyze the fledgling federal system. How are the media to be regulated? How should they approach fights between the different levels of government? Will federalism lead to further divisions in a hugely diverse country or bring the country together? Can federalism alter a political culture that allows corruption to flourish?
Mahendra Bistra, president of the Nepali journalists’ association, spoke for many of his fellow citizens when he asked whether federalism will unite Nepal, or break it up? “Will it do good or bad?” he wondered. “Will it bring more prosperity or not?”
It has been less than a decade since Nepal outlawed its centuries-old monarchy, and now a country that is 81-per-cent Hindu has a constitution declaring it to be not only a republic but a secular state. Nepalis now have to figure out how to implement a system none of them has ever known, except in theory. The constitution they have written is huge, much longer than the British North America Act and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms combined.
They have created seven provinces on paper and given them considerable power, although not as much as Canadian provinces have. But none of the provinces yet has a name (they are now known by number), a capital city or a civil service. Haggling continues over where to draw some of the provincial borders.
To make matters more complicated still, parties representing the Madhesi, an ethnic minority that lives mainly along the border with India, demanded changes to the constitution. When too few were offered, violence ensued, resulting in rioting and deaths that led India to close the border, cutting off much commerce, including Nepal’s fuel supply. It was a not-so-subtle way for India, the big brother often resented by many Nepalis, to exert its influence. The border has reopened, but the effects of the shortages are still being felt.
In Kathmandu, a traffic jungle at the best of times, drivers of buses, cars and motor scooters wait hours for diesel and gasoline – a delay caused by hoarding and the black market even when there is no blockade.
The lack of fuel is just one demonstration of how poorly governed Nepal remains. The political elites in Kathmandu that have dominated the central government are universally condemned for corruption and inefficiency. Indeed, one of the driving arguments for federalism was to dilute the influence of the capital’s traditional power brokers. In reality, the city itself is a problem.
Nepal presents to the world the image of the Himalayas – colourful villages, the home of Buddha, stunning UNESCO world-heritage sites for both the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Kathmandu ruins that image. It forces people to endure what they should not reasonably be asked to endure, so lacking are municipal services.
The sprawling home to more than a million people has few sidewalks and no traffic lights, but garbage and potholes everywhere. Evidence of either the municipal or national government is hard to find. In almost a week in the city that involved much travel by vehicle and on foot, only one public-works team was spotted.
Health is another concern. The air in Beijing and New Delhi may be the world’s worst, but Kathmandu’s is close behind. The city sits in a valley, so the inversion effect of captured pollution from the emissions of so many old, chugging vehicles and people driven to use firewood (illegally) to cook creates a haze that makes the nearby hills and mountains all but invisible in winter.
Perhaps because of entrenched fatalism, protests are rare. But the country’s per-capita income, according to the World Bank, is $730 (U.S.), even lower than that of Haiti, another impoverished quake victim, and Western aid agencies fume at how little overseas money has reached those who need help, or has yet been used to repair damaged structures. They lay the blame on political infighting, the spoils system that leads to inefficiencies, and generalized lassitude. The government replies that agencies often do not use Nepali people or ideas, try to impose solutions on the country, and are excessively impatient in handling complicated problems. Either way, not enough has been spent.
The bottom line
Will federalism improve Nepal’s governmental efficiency? A lot of people think it can do no worse, especially if power is devolved to governments nearer the people.
Federalism ought to improve the reflection of the country’s diversity, since one of the impulses for federalism was to give more groups a share of power. There are more than 125 ethnic groups in Nepal and about 90 languages (only half of which are still used by more than handfuls of people). The country is further split by divisions between peoples of the southern plains, the hills and the mountains. The caste system remains among Hindus, although legally it’s supposed to be gone.
Women face assumptions of male dominance, although progress is being made to advance them in public life. (The new chief justice is a woman, as is about a third of the constituent assembly.) Some Madhesis, meanwhile, remain unhappy and threaten a return to violence if they don’t get the provincial boundaries they want. Some Hindus reject the secular cast of the new constitution.
Implementation of federalism will test the skills of all involved, but there is near-unanimous agreement that Nepal is not going back. The people’s representatives voted overwhelmingly to turn Nepal into a federal state. With all the country’s other daunting challenges, they must now try to make it work.
No homes, no jobs – the human aftershock
Even a year later, no one can yet measure the long-term effects of the two earthquakes last April that killed thousands of people, destroyed whole villages and toppled or weakened an untold number of structures.Everywhere in Kathmandu evidence abounds of the devastation nature wrought. World Heritage Site temples and shrines fell or were seriously damaged. Structures throughout the city are cracked, awaiting demolition.
Piles of bricks are stacked (or just heaped) everywhere – reminders of where buildings once stood. Thousands of people from the destroyed villages have arrived in Kathmandu, and are now either sleeping in tents or corrugated metal shacks (neither of which are adequate for the cold) or struggling to find proper accommodation, which is far more expensive here than it would have been back home.
A city already piled high with immense problems has now been given the long-term challenge of handling an influx of citizens without jobs but with families to support.
Whatever estimates existed for Kathmandu’s population before the quakes are now seriously out of date.
Something in especially short supply is honesty: Nepal ranks 130th among 167 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
One example, among many, of both corruption and inefficiency: Electricity is in such short supply that Kathmandu residents must go without it for half of every day – and sometimes more.
Jeffrey Simpson is The Globe Mail’s national affairs columnist.

Forum of Federations