The price of frame

The Cabinet on Wednesday approved a draft of a bill the government intends to table in the House of Representatives to amend the Citizenship Act 1964 AD to ease the process of obtaining citizenship papers. This move has to do with the demands put forth by some, including the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, for changes in the law before the constituent assembly elections. People in the NSP claim that some ‘4,000,000 Madhesis’ are without citizenship. The Cabinet has set April 15, 1989 as the cut-off date for eligibility. If the bill is passed, as is likely given the coalition’s composition, anyone who can establish that he or she has been residing in Nepal since that date and produce some document or proof in support, such as birth certificate and inclusion in the voters’ list, will get Nepali citizenship. To make things even easier, in the absence of such proof, recommendations from three Nepali citizens will be enough. The proposed bill provides for citizenship based on mother’s nationality also.

Nobody contests the need to provide citizenship to Nepalis, whether of the hills or the Terai. It is the duty of the government to make extraordinary efforts to make sure that genuine Nepalis, such as those who have been residing in Nepal for centuries, are not without citizenship. But the proposed policy is too liberal for a small country sandwiched between the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, and sharing an open border on three sides, with the former. In view of the close economic, social and cultural interactions with India, including the common practice of marriage across the border, if the proposed bill becomes a law, the government will have to give citizenship certificates to probably tens of lakhs who came to Nepal in recent decades from across the border. Accordingly, this right will have to be extended to others, such as Tibetans, Bhutanese, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis.

The demographic implications of this policy are obvious. Many believe it will speed up the process of Nepalis becoming a minority in their own land. Every country has a different citizenship law, based on its realities. Countries with a large territory, low population density, low birth rates, and chronic labour shortages tend to adopt a liberal immigration policy, such as Canada and the US, but Nepal possesses opposite features. Japan, for example, does not permit citizenship to even the children born in Japan to Japanese women married to foreigners. Given Nepal’s peculiarities, it can hardly afford to follow too liberal a policy. To illustrate the point, if all the Nepalis emigrated southwards or northwards, the population increase there would be just about two per cent, but if only two per cent of the population from either poured into Nepal, its population would double, creating a demographic upheaval. A liberal population policy would render all family planning efforts redundant. So the parliament should take into account Nepal’s long-term interests rather than the populist politics as it debates the proposed bill.