| October 24, 2018

No magic formula

Humla cold-related deaths

For the boosters of federalism, one of the main reasons Nepal had to be federated was in order to empower local administrative units to effectively deal with local issues. In their view, for most of its 250 years of existence as a unified nation-state, Nepal had become synonymous with Kathmandu valley. The regional administrators, directly appointed by the center, were accountable to no one except their political masters in the capital; that their role was limited to maintaining law and order lest these neglected peripheries revolted against Kathmandu. We agree. The unitary structure and its opaque machineries only helped the rulers in Kathmandu prolong their stay in power and to extract resources from these outlying regions to their sole benefit. Federalism, on the other hand, is based on the premise of maximum devolution of power and empowering each federal unit to be self-sufficient. Thankfully, Nepal is now a constitutionally federal country. But there is apparently a very long way to go before there can be effective devolution of power and resources that underpinned the federal dream.
Over the past three months, 20 people have been killed in the Mid-Western Humla district. They weren't killed by old age, even though most of them were well above 60. The cause of their death was complications related to common cold. There isn't a family in Syanda and Raya VDCs of the district where someone or the other has not taken to bed from such complications; at least 1,500 people in Humla are ailing, mainly in these two VDCs. But since there are few doctors and since local health posts are out of even basic medicines like paracetamol and anti-worm tablets, most of these people have been effectively left to fend for themselves. It is hard not to see the plight of Humlis as a consequence of the center's blatant neglect. Effective implementation of federalism would mean, its supporters say, a more equitable distribution of resources in the country, which would, among other things, entail that each federal province would more or less meet all healthcare needs of its residents. It will mean more hospitals in the peripheries, and more doctors on duty.

But is the calculus so straightforward? Will implementation of the federal project really bring meaningful changes in the lives of common folks back in Humla? Will there, in that case, be adequate doctors and life-saving medicines for them? We doubt. Yes, in principle, we still support the federal project, and believe its judicious application would be in the interest of most Nepalis. But at the end of the day, a system is only as good as those administering it. On the strength of evidence so far, even the designers of the federal formula in Nepal don't seem much bothered about the plight of their brethren in the outskirts. The way we see it, so long as the extractive mindset of our political class—and the vote-bank politics they revel in—changes, the ailing people of Humla are unlikely to get much help, with or without federalism.

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