On face value the demand for representation based on actual population in each district, as raised by various terai groups including ruling coalition member Nepal Sadbhavana Party, sounds justified. But amidst the heat of a terai in flames the flip side of the coin is being completely missed, and even facts are being distorted.The issue of “under-representation” from the terai should be viewed from three angles:
By Ameet Dhakal
The Kathmandu Post
A. How severe is the case of “under-representation”, and more importantly, whether it is deliberate?
B. The practicality of redrawing the constituencies in proportion to the population
C. Brining a development dimension into the representation issue.
Population is the first criteria, as it should be, in the current demarcation of the constituencies. Representation is not exactly in proportion to the population in the terai districts, but the terai is also not unfairly under-represented. Based on 2001 census- which is the latest one – for every 112,933.77 population there should be one electoral constituency. Let’s us do a reality check in the eastern terai districts, where the agitation is currently concentrated. If constituencies were to be redrawn in proportion to the population, Siraha (where the current conflagration sparked) would have 5.06 constituencies, Saptari 5.02, Sunsari 5.5, Sarlahi 5.6, Dhanusha 5.9 and Morang 7.4. Now let’s look at the number of the current constituencies in these districts. Siraha, Saptari, Sunsari, Sarlahi and Dhanusha have 5 constituencies each and Morang has 7 constituencies. How seriously underrepresented are these districts? Only by a fraction.
Is there a deliberate bias behind under-representing of ethnic Madhesis?
Currently, Kathmandu, Jhapa and Rupandehi are the three most under-represented districts. Based on population, Kathmandu should have 9.5 electoral constituencies and Jhapa and Rupendhei should have 6 each. But Kathmandu has only 7, Jhapa has 5 (after the deletion of one constituency this year) and Rupandehi also 5. Newars are the dominant ethnic group in Kathmandu, while Bahuns as a cast group are dominant in Jhapa and Rupandehi.
Now let’s see the representation issue from the practical point of view. If constituencies are redrawn in proportion to the populations, then five districts in the northern-western strip – Humla, Mugu, Dolpa, Mustang and Manag – will have only one electoral constituency since the total population of these five districts is just 138,645. How will a candidate, say from Manang, campaign in Humla? The total area of this single constituency would be 22,898 square kilometers. In terms of geographical size this constituency will be larger than the 14 terai districts (with 71 constituencies) spreading from Jhapa to Dang (i.e., Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Sarlahi, Rautahat, Bara, Parsa, Nawalparasi, Rupandehi, Kapilvastu and Dang). These 14 districts together cover only 22,594 square kilometers. One can also compare the difficulty of campaigning in this mammoth constituency with electioneering in a constituency in the terai that a candidate can make two rounds of every day on a bicycle.
The problem with the current dispute on representation is, it’s being argued as if headcount alone matters and geography is irrelevant. But the American experience says otherwise. For instance, the state of California has a population of over 36 million while the tiny northern-eastern state of Vermont has a population of just 623,000. Yet both states send two senators each to the US Senate. The US is not necessarily the best model, and we don’t necessarily have to follow it. But there should be a fair balance between geography and population. That’s why after 1990 the constituencies were redrawn dismantling what used to be either one or two constituencies per district during the Panchaayat era.
Finally, let’s analyze the representation issue from a development perspective.
The argument for fair representation is that under-representation weakens the voice of a region which will have implications in policy formation and resource allocations.
If this argument is true, the representation of backward regions should be increased instead. In other words it makes little sense to increase the representation of districts with high Human Development Index (HDI) such as Kathamndu (HDI, 1), Rupandehi (HDI, 5), Jhapa (HDI, 18) and Kaski (HDI, 3) and reduce the representation of districts with low HDI such as Mugu (HDI, 75), Bajura (73), Kalikot (72), Bajhang (71) and Jajarkot (70).
By agreeing to increase the electoral constituencies in the terai districts in proportion to the rise in their population while keeping the number of constituencies in the hill districts unchanged, the government has tried to strike a balance. It should address the grievances of under-representation of the Madhesi population and also the representation needs of the sparsely populated hill districts.
Ameet Dhakal is the news editor of the Kathmandu Post.