This week saw the release of Chimpanzee, a fascinating documentary about the life of a three-year-old chimp named Oscar which revealed how emotionally similar human and primate behaviour can be. The chimps in the Disney film understood the meaning of cooperation, the value of their diverse resource base, and remarkably, they also had a sense of empathy towards each other.
They built tools to harvest food, and passed on this knowledge to the younger generation. A healthy eco-system thrives on this principle of cooperation and biological diversity. This is how a community becomes resilient and builds coping capacity. The chimpanzee community knew how to make rational decisions not only to survive, but to thrive.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of higher primates, especially in present-day Nepal where political leaders show a lack of enlightened self-interest that comes from cooperation. Chimps evolved to favour genes that promoted cooperation because the ones who worked together survived better than those who behaved selfishly.
The federal structure models promoted by the three main parties show how short-sighted and narrow-minded Nepal's political leadership continues to be. The NC's seven state model, the UML's seven or 12 state model (they have left it undetermined in classic flip-flop style) and the Maoists' ten-state model are all outcomes of closed door meetings. The past three years of consultations, suggestions from public hearings, and the advice of experts have all been ignored.
None of the three proposals take into account the emerging regional economic and geopolitical realities and the comparative advantages of our landscape, people, and resources. The separation of the Tarai from its natural watershed is unwise and counterproductive for the Madhesis themselves.
The Tarai just has one resource base: agriculture, whereas the hills and mountains have diverse cash crops, tourism, hydropower and water. The hills and plains also suffer from soil erosion and flooding, and if these two regions are together they will improve their bargaining position vis-à-vis the downstream Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The clamour for identity is a result of the historical marginalisation of Nepal's diverse ethnicities, but in addressing this grievance the proponents of ethnicity-based federalism are proposing to carve up the country into entities that will be economically unsustainable and lay the seeds for long-term inter-ethnic discord.
Nepal's multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-ethnic mosaic is overlapped to such an extent that it is impossible to draw boundaries. If boundaries must be carved, they must reflect Nepal's bio-ecological watershed of the four main rivers as the basis of decentralisation.
When the lowest bargaining position seems to be the seven-state model, it may be absurd to push for a four-state model, but that is the only model that will actually satisfy everyone. And such an economic cooperative model is the only one that will be viable.
This proposal encompasses ethnic sentiment as well as our need for economic integration by incorporating diverse resource bases and their comparative advantages by demarcating Karnali, Gandaki, Koshi, and Bagmati as the capitals of Kathmandu Valley. Three or so ethnic provinces could be formed within each of these states. A complete separation of the Tarai strip from the hills in forming a stand-along province will have detrimental effects on the people of Tarai in the long run.
It makes very little sense to divide our resource base while the rest of the world is moving towards forming economic communities. The Tarai is already densely populated and has reached the limits of its agricultural and natural resources. In 20 years, with no other resource to harness, this strip of land will likely turn into a spatial poverty trap. A stand-alone hilly region, on the other hand, will struggle with food deficits. Inhabitants of the hills are migrating out in record numbers to the Tarai plains and abroad. In the short run, the hilly regions will continue to suffer. Add to that the claims about river systems and flooding problems, and we are looking at a protracted water conflict and ethnic disharmony.
An ecologically balanced larger Karnali state, on the other hand, can be a powerhouse in producing protein through animal husbandry, whereas its Tarai section can still be a bread basket. The potential of this hill-plain, considering its combined cash crops (coffee, olives, herbs, spices, and vegetables) is unlimited.
The same argument applies to the other two Tarai provinces (Lumbini sub-province within the larger Gandaki state, and Janakipur or Mithila province in the Koshi state). Dividing the Tarai into three sub-provinces and making each of them a part of the larger state entity is not the end of the world. An economic unit from the mountains down to the plains will be a force to reckon with. A Koshi state will have stronger bargaining power than a strip of Tarai province.
A governance unit comprising the three ecological regions need not be seen as anti-Pahad or anti-Madhes. Collectively, we can all be winners in the long-run, as Oscar the chimp instinctively came to learn.
Alok K Bohara, PhD is a professor at the University of New Mexico in the United States
Also by the author in Nepali Times:
Equal opportunity poverty, # 338