Commentators and activists, from the Maoists to those who consider themselves liberal, bemoan centralised governance but when it comes to dismantling, they either resist, produce excuses, propose cosmetic reforms, consider it as lower priority, or defend the unitary state structure. Unitary state is the base of centralisation, which needs to be dismantled. The demand for federalism by Madhesis and indigenous nationalities — fundamentally a struggle against centralisation and resistance or lack of sympathy toward it by the CHHEM (caste hill Hindu elite males) dominated polity, mainstream civil society and media — exposes the predilections for concentrated power within these groups.

The factors that contributed to centralisation in Nepal are many, including the 1990 Constitution. The 2006 People’s Movement targeted against the Palace forced the King to give up power but the Interim Constitution has vested the PM with more power. The continuation of unitary state, a formal arrangement that does not divide power between different levels of government constitutionally, is the foundation of centralisation. The power enjoyed by lower levels of government is dependent upon the centre in a unitary state. As long as unitary structure remains, decentralisation can be reversed by a cabinet decision. Not long after the promulgation of 1999 decentralisation act, the government appointed regional administrators.

In a federal system, the constitution guarantees regional governments’ power and the centre cannot impinge upon their jurisdictions. Regional and local governments have substantial taxation and revenue generating authority and govern through administration and police force. In unitary Nepal, not only did the centre keep most of the revenue generating and taxation power but also the police and civil administration. All the powers were virtually concentrated within the CHHEM.

The political elite’s reluctance to decentralise suggests that as long as the unitary state remains, Nepal will have to make do with cosmetic decentralisation. Reasonable decentralisation (administrative, fiscal and political) can occur in a unitary state only if the country is homogeneous and has a power-sharing culture. Unfortunately, Nepal has neither.

Despite many decentralisation schemes since the sixties, their impact on the country has been minimal. The 1999 Self Governance Act gave more power to local governments but it was only aimed at administrative decentralisation. Comparison of Nepal’s decentralisation with 36 democracies studied by Lijphart (1999) showed that Nepal received lowest decentralisation rank. Local governments in Nepal enjoy very little or no administrative, fiscal and political power. They provide very few services, let alone make political decisions and collect revenue.

According to a University of Georgia survey, local governments in Nepal administered around 4 per cent of public expenditure (4.62, 4.24, and 3.37 per cent respectively in 1998/99,1999/2000, and 2000/01) in contrast to 13.78 and 26.12 per cent in developing and transitional countries respectively. The total share of local governments in revenue was 7.39, 6.55 and 5.66 per cent respectively for 1998/99, 1999/2000 and 2000/01. In the fields of education and culture, Kathmandu had almost monopolistic power over policy formulation and implementation.

The Nepali experience shows that political and administrative elite either refuse to distribute power or take back what little is given. Thus, as long as unitary state remains, effective decentralisation may not take place. The current Terai turmoil is a result of the elite’s refusal to empower people. As a result, the Madhesis have mobilised for federalism.

The Kirat Workers’ Party has initiated a movement for ethnic autonomy. Indigenous nationalities have also threatened a movement for ethnic federalism. If the ruling elite continues to resist, Nepal may witness more violence. The extent of violence may depend on how soon and to what extent the government accommodates their interests.

The Sri Lankan experience could help understand the future trajectory of self-governance movements. Tamils began to support secessionist groups after their ethnic autonomy movement failed.

When the Lankan government agreed to ethnic federalism, the initiative failed as much blood had been spilled and positions hardened. The movements of Madhesis and indigenous nationalities are not yet demanding separatism but if they fail to get autonomy, they might soon shift their support for separatist groups. Let’s hope the government accommodates genuine demands of the disadvantaged people before repressed activists are radicalised and separatism seems the only viable option.

Dr Lawoti teaches Political Science at Western Michigan University