Murari Sharma: Selection of state capitals has not been wise

The government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has announced the temporary state capitals for Nepal’s newly created seven provinces, which are yet to be given their specific names. The decision has stirred protests in some of those cities that were also aspiring to the privilege. As people, should we be worked up against the selection?

For now, Biratnagar will be the capital of State 1, Janakpur for State 2, Hetauda for State 3, Pokhara for State 4, Butwal for State 5, Surkhet for State 6, and Dhangadhi for State 7. Dhankuta, Dharan and Itahari were competing with Biratnagar, Birgunj with Janakpur, Bhaktapur with Hetauda,  Dang with Butwal, and Doti with Dhangadhi. The protests have erupted in those places which were left out in this decision, barring in State 3. While politicians who rooted for the left-out cities are up in arms, political pundits have also joined the fray.

Some political pundits, like Krishna Khanal, have suggested that the squabble over the temporary state capitals of the newly federalized Nepal should not be a subject of fierce emotional outpour. Prima facie, it is true that temporary state capitals might be just temporary and not worth fighting against. It might also be true that if you already live in a privileged area or have enough resources to overcome the geographical distances, the issue is not worth crying over.

But for most other people, the location of state capitals matters. The state capital will bring investment, business opportunities, employment, good schools and hospitals, good transportation links, access to power, political influence, and so on. Besides, the temporary capitals may prove permanent in most situations because the people in these places would not easily abandon the privilege once they have achieved. Changing the status quo would bring even a bigger turmoil. So let us look at whether the selection of the temporary capitals has been wise.

A host of factors — political and non-political — needs to be considered while making such a momentous determination. The Deuba government, which is now in a minority and on its way out, could not garner support from the left alliance, the winner of the recent general elections. Besides, it seems that it did not give enough thought to some of the important of non-political elements essential for this important decision. They include the availability of transportation links, including air links, communication facilities, room to grow further, central location,  water supply, and security, mainly external.

Let me dwell on these elements specifically her. From the point of transportation links, the seven state capitals have been well thought out. They all have good roads linking to them to Kathmandu and to the provinces they will serve. Except for Hetauda, other places have air links as well. All seven state capitals have had good communication links, if not the best ones, within their respective regions. They all have room to grow into bigger cities as well.

In terms of the centrality of location, the decision is a mixed bag. While you cannot quibble much about Janakpur, Pokhara, and Surkhet, other places do leave much to be desired. Biratnagar, Hetauda, Butwal, and Dhangadhi are nowhere near the center of the respective provinces.

In addition, life needs water to sustain, and no wonder why most large cities are located near a river or sea. Unfortunately, except for Pokhara, no other temporary state capital is near a large body of water. While selecting permanent capitals for the states, we need to make sure that the source of water is within a manageable distance.

From the external security point of view, Makwanpur, Pokhara, and Surkhet are fine. They are far from neighboring countries, and this distance will shield them from the external threat of a quick aggression. But Biratnagar, Butwal, and Dhangadhi will be vulnerable to external threats as well as an internal criminal threat.

In the past, Indian police have come all the way to Kathmandu and other places in the name of a hot pursuit of criminals. Biratnagar, Butwal, and Dhangadhi will be under the direct range of fire for Indian security officials. If Seoul with 10 million people were not just 35 miles away from its border, South Korea could afford to be much tougher with its northern neighbor. Sure, in Europe, some capitals — for instance, Bratislava — are not far from their international borders, but the continent is not as volatile as the Asian continent where Nepal lies.

Among the various requirements for the ideal state capital, security must stand at the top. The reason is simple. You cannot change your geography but you can change all other elements through investment. For instance, India established New Delhi and the United States established the Washington DC, and both countries built the infrastructure to sustain their federal capitals.  In other words, Biratnagar, Janakpur, Butwal, and Dhangadhi should not be made permanent state capitals at all. They are too close to the border.

Among the candidate cities in State 1, Dhankuta has no airport and its land transport link is also tenuous. Itahari is ideal for transport links at the crossroads of the East-West Highway and North-South Highway but it is closer to the Indian border than Dharan.  Dharan has no room to grow without destroying the forest at its feet. But at any rate, Biratnagar should not be the permanent state capital unless we want Patna to be our de facto state capital.

From the security point of view as well as connectivity, Bardibas will be the ideal place for the capital of State 2. It is much farther than Janakpur from the border and is at the crossroad of the East-West Highway as well as Kathmandu-Bardibas Road. Besides, a new international airport is being considered in Nijgadh, which will be within a reasonable distance from Bardibas. Birgunj will be even closer than Biratnagar from the Indian border.

Hetauda needs a sizeable airport to become a permanent capital of State 3. Some heads of state and government visiting Nepal would want to visit state capitals as well, and we must have an airport that can handle much bigger planes than the Pilatus Porter, Twin Otters, and other small aircraft. For State 4, Tuslipur will be a better place than Butwal from the security point of view as well as from its relatively central location. Its airport should be extended for better air connectivity.

For State 7, Dhangadhi is too close to the border to feel secure and not centrally located for the province. But Doti is not a good substitute for Dhangadhi. Doti’s airport cannot handle big aircraft and is not a regional air link hub. State 7’s capital should be established anywhere north of the Eas-West Highway. Attaria could be considered as a possible choice, for instance.

While the Deuba government might have been under pressure to pave the way for provincial set up to start functioning and to choose places for state capitals that already have had some infrastructure, the decision should be treated as a stop-gap measure only. The new federal government and provincial governments must give serious attention to the elements that should be taken into account before making decisions on permanent state capitals.

While other countries are marching ahead on a long trajectory of political evolution and economic growth, Nepal has remained behind because we always go for the short-term political expediency rather than long-term vision. Our decision should be transformational: We should do what we want to be 10 or 20 years down the road, not cling to the status quo and expediency while deciding our permanent state capitals and our future. So the squabble over the state capitals is necessary to arrive at a rational decision.

 

 

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