Nepal in Transition: the Terai Question

By Kul Chandra Gautam

Panel Discussion at the India-China Institute

The New School University, New York, 10 February 2007

Let me join my fellow panelists in complementing you, Ashok Gurungji, for convening this very timely discussion on a major burning issue of Nepal at this historic time of extraordinary democratic transition.

We are grateful, and feel very proud of you, Ashokji, for using your convening power as the Director of the India-China Institute to give visibility to the issues of our small but beautiful and beloved homeland sandwiched between our giant neighbours.

And please accept my very warm congratulations for the launch of the Institute’s latest project on Inclusive Democracy in Nepal, precisely the topic of our discussion today.

Let me also take the occasion to thank our wonderful community organizations – the Alliance for Democracy and Human Rights in Nepal, USA; the Nepalese Democratic Youth Council, USA; and the Nepal America Friendship Society for sponsoring this panel discussion.

It is so heart-warming to see these and so many other community organizations of Nepalis living abroad, especially here in North America and in New York in particular.

We all realize that while back home our first identity maybe as Madhesis, Pahadis, Janatatis, Bahuns, Chhetris, Newars or whatever sub-group, while abroad we are all proud Nepalis.

This is not to deny our differences and diversity – nor to push under the carpet the shameful injustices, the exclusion, the discrimination of the kind that our fellow panelists have described so vividly, but to remind ourselves that in this age of globalization where the whole world is becoming a small village, it is our duty to do everything in our power to help foster a vision of a new Nepal, where all of us can dream about and help build a peaceful, prosperous, egalitarian and democratic nation, where we can celebrate our beautiful diversity as a unifying asset rather than as a divisive liability.

Working at the United Nations, I marvel every day at the beauty of the diversity of nations – people of many colours, speaking multiple languages, wearing different clothes, following different religions and cultural practices, but all working to promote common ideals for world peace, human security and human rights.

There is no reason why we Nepalis – Madhesis and Pahadis alike – cannot pursue a similar dream.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, the world has enough resources to meet everybody’s needs, but not enough to satisfy everyone’s greed.

In Nepal too – although we are poor and under-developed today, we surely have the potential to build a new Nepal, capable of meeting all our people’s basic needs in an equitable and progressive manner, both with our internal national resources, and with the support of our international development partners who have great reservoir of goodwill towards Nepal especially at this historic juncture.

Now let me comment a little bit on the presentations made by my fellow panelists, as Ashokji suggested in describing my role here today.

But first let me acknowledge that I feel truly humbled to be invited to join this distinguished group of panelists. Everyone of my fellow panelists have given much more thought, done more research and have deeper insights on the Terai question than I do.

Pramodji and Mahendraji are scholars, professors and researchers who obviously have done a great deal of thinking, research and analysis. The richness of their presentations showed us the reality of the situation in the Terai/Madesh region compared to the rest of the country. My hats off to them for their insightful observations and suggestions for a way forward.

I have always enjoyed reading Parmendraji’s postings in his web blog. I find Parmendraji passionate, persistent and provocative. While we may not always agree with his specific prescriptions, I admire Parmendraji’s audacity, creativity and quick wit, and his openness to change his mind when presented with better arguments and evidence or alternative solutions.

Now what did we learn from their presentations?

On facts and figures, certain things are clear. We saw that historically the people of Terai have been subject to either benign neglect or active exploitation and discrimination..

As Mahendraji emphasized, the political participation of Madhesis – and that of other marginalized groups of Janajatis, Dalits and women, has been disproportionately inequitable.

The percentage of Madhesis in our government, civil service, military and police, etc. is unacceptably low because of their alienation, exclusion, and even collusion by the dominant groups of rulers in Kathmandu and other jurisdictions.

But it is important to distinguish between how much of this discrimination is due to deliberate state discrimination, and how much is due to long-entrenched social and cultural prejudice of individuals and groups. As Mahendraji showed in describing various forms of exclusion, the solutions to these problems will vary depending on the source of the problems.

State discrimination is, of course utterly unacceptable in this day and age. We must seek constitutional, legislative, and political solutions of the kind that Parmendraji and Pramodji spoke about.

However, if it is primarily a question of discrimination by individuals or groups, rather than by the State, the answer will probably lie in education, social transformation, and attitudinal change.

We must be mindful that democracy can sometimes be abused by demagogues to fuel and exacerbate and polarize societies where there are deep seated ethnic or cultural prejudices and animosities, as we have seen in the Middle East, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and East Timor.

Let us be careful that we do not prescribe the wrong medicines to cure the right diseases.

Some of the facts and figures presented by our panelists while factually correct, may not be fully balanced and can be interpreted in different ways.

For example, is Terai really suffering from significantly lower investment than the rest of the country? Here, I have heard differing views and interpretation, and a rather mixed picture.

By some estimates 2/3rds of Nepal’s national infrastructure is in the Terai; most of Nepal’s industries are in Terai; much of Nepal’s investment in agriculture – e.g. irrigation, fertilizers, farm mechanization – is in Terai.

And some of the most serious social problems of Terai have nothing to do with domination by Pahadi rulers, but are deeply rooted in the Terai’s own inherited tradition. For example, we find greater segregation of dalits and women in Terai than in the hills and mountains. There is also greater incidence of child marriage and dowry payments, poor sanitation, etc in Terai. This has little to do with Pahadi domination.

It is true that in many projects Pahadi areas receive higher budget allocation than Terai. But much of it has nothing to do with discrimination or more favourable treatment of Pahadis, but simply a reflection of the higher cost of executing similar projects in the Hills and Mountains because of their topography and logistical challenges compared to the more readily accessible Terai.

It can cost many times more to implement an identical development project in parts of Karnali than in Saptari or Nawal Parasi.

And in a democracy, and from a rights-based perspective, we need to respond to the needs of all constituencies, including in remote areas.

None of this is to downplay the real and pervasive exclusion and discrimination against the Madhesis which must be seriously addressed. But we must be careful not to paint the picture of the reality in stark black and white terms, when in fact there are many shades of gray.

Now let me address the issue of federalism.

It is clear to me – and I agree with Prmod, Parmendra and Mahendraji – that some form of federalism is the way to go. At this stage in Nepal’s political evolution, there is no alternative. And we need not be afraid of federalism, if it is judiciously introduced and managed.

In the world as whole, we now see two trends. In the private sector, for example, on the one hand, we see the acquisition, mergers and formation of large conglomerates. And on the other hand, we see the emergence and proliferation of small, beautiful, specialized boutiques – often within large megastores.

In governments and states too, we see similar trends. On the one hand, we see communities clamouring for local autonomy, breaking up of countries like the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, the Czech and Slovak republics.

But on the other hand, we also see the emergence of larger political units like the European Union moving towards a borderless community of nations.

Learning from the lessons of such experiences, in Nepal too we must strike the right balance.

As a relatively small country in the middle of two of the world’s largest countries and fastest growing economies, it would not be wise or far-sighted to go for fragmentation of Nepal into economically unviable little Bantustans or to Balkanize the country into constantly fighting and struggling mini-states.

Dividing the country in ethnic or linguistic federations as proposed by the Maoists would, frankly, be a disaster.

We should also guard against the tendency to create federations with a view to giving state-funded jobs to large number of people by establishing a dozen or more different cabinets, parliaments, civil service, etc. That might only replicate the corruption, inefficiency and parasitism of Nepal’s unitary state today.

Instead, even in “federal” units, we should create a light and nimble machinery of public administration that focuses on building a strong economy capable of promoting private entrepreneurship as the engine of growth and job creation.

With this in mind, besides formulating a progressive, inclusive, democratic constitution and supporting legislation and institutions, we must immediately begin to prepare a massive national reconstruction and development plan.

I would see the Terai being the locus of massive, futuristic development projects – including, for example, an East-West high speed railway traversing the 1000 kilometres from Mechi to Mahakali in less than 10 hours.

I would see a modern, twin capital city of Nepal being built in middle Terai linked with Kathmandu through a high speed tunnel/road combination.

I would see a new international airport being built in the Terai connecting it, and the rest of Nepal, with the outside world and making Nepal a major South Asian tourist hub.

As part of our post-conflict reconstruction and development plan, I would see half a dozen or more new, futuristic urban growth centres being built in the Terai as dynamic regional growth poles for all of Nepal.

We don’t have time to discuss all these ideas today, but I can see many possibilities for making Terai not just an agricultural breadbasket, but a dynamic region of industrial and economic growth for all of Nepal – with first and major beneficiaries being the Madhesi people – and among them, today’s most marginalized Madhesis.

But no amount of physical infrastructure and investment is going to easily change the deeply ingrained mindset of people – whether they are Pahadis or Madhesis. For that, we are going to have to invest heavily in education, behaviour change, and social transformation.

A functioning democracy is the best guarantee to bring about such changes. I would hope that all Nepalis will unite and capitalize on our new-found democracy to bring about the kind of peaceful changes that our people – both Pahadis and Madhesis, and everybody else – so desperately need and richly deserve.

Let me conclude by saying that the Terai movement that we witnessed in the last few weeks ought to be an eye opener for all of us to be far more sensitive and proactive in designing our state-craft that is truly inclusive, participatory, and equitable.

In that sense, I agree that last month’s Madheshi Kranti was a continuation of last year’s April Jana Andolan. And we owe a debt of gratitude to some – but not all – of the more enlightened leaders and activists of the Terai movement , especially the moderate Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, for making a positive contribution to consolidation of a more inclusive democracy in Nepal.

Thank you.