Dipak Yadav could not go home for months. He would spend the whole day shouting anti-Kathmandu slogans, burning tyres on the streets of Birgunj and clashing with police. As night fell, he was at the barricades on the Raxaul border, barring cargo trucks from crossing into Nepal.
Like thousands of other Madhesi youth alienated by mainstream parties and the new constitution, Yadav was a rebel during the 2015 agitation. Today, at age 29, he is one of the secretaries of Province 2 Chief Minister Lalbabu Raut, and at the centre of provincial power at the newly-refurbished building of Janakpur Cigarette Factory built by the Soviet Union 50 years ago.
The Constitution, however flawed, has given the Madhesi people almost what they fought for: an autonomous province. They have risen up against Kathmandu’s perceived hegemony thrice in the past decade, and finally they have a chance to fix things themselves.
However, Yadav insists he is still a rebel, despite having free access to the corridors of power of Province 2. “My role has changed, but my core responsibility has not, it is still to serve the Madhesi people,” he says.
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Yadav essentially personifies Province 2. The province government may rule the mid-eastern Tarai, but it still struggles against Kathmandu for more autonomy. Last month, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Janakpur, Chief Minister Raut raised hackles in the national capital by complaining about Constitution amendments, and Kathmandu’s continued reluctance to grant them.
Raut told Nepali Times in an interview in Janakpur last week: “I cannot forget what the people of the Madhes fought for just because I am now Chief Minister.”
Province 2 has been ground zero in the battle for federalism. After signing a peace accord in November 2006, the Maoists did not show much interest in the federalism they fought a war for. But the Madhesi people did, and they protested until the government agreed to institutionalise federalism through the Interim Constitution in 2007.
In 2015, the mainstream parties wanted to pass the new Constitution without determining the number and boundaries of provinces. As a result, protests broke throughout the southern plains, and more than 50 people were killed in violent clashes. Mainstream parties were eventually forced to carve out provincial boundaries before the promulgation of the Constitution.
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The Madhes-based parties were still not satisfied, but they took part in last year’s elections hoping to push for Constitution amendments at a later date. After two Madhes-based parties formed a coalition government in Province 2, Dipendra Jha, a lawyer critical of the Constitution, left Kathmandu and settled down in Janakpur as Chief Attorney.
He says: “I was not lured by a top government post, but by the prospect of helping make federalism work. We now have a chance to deliver what we fought for on the streets with our own bureaucracy, police, and autonomy.”
Indeed, Chief Minister Raut knows that the failure of federalism in Province 2 could be used as an excuse by status quoists in Kathmandu to cut back on regional autonomy. So he is aiming for rapid economic transformation of Province 2, and its development into Nepal’s #1 province.
Janakpur-based analyst Surendra Labh says people in the Madhes care deeply about federalism, and want to make it work because they have suffered from Kathmandu’s neglect.
“If federalism fails here, it will fail in the whole country,” he says.
The capital of Province 2 was cleaned up for the Modi visit, but is now dusty and scruffy again. A $19 million ADB project faces delays in expanding major roads and building a drainage system. Facades of houses are being bulldozed in the core city, and roads are dug up everywhere. But local people are patient, and hope the cradle of the Mithila Civilisation will get a much-needed facelift when the project is completed in 2020.
The railway service from Janakpur to Jayanagar in India will resume next year, linking Nepal to India’s vast rail network. This 32km narrow-gauge railroad track is being upgraded to broad-gauge, and it will be extended 30km north to Bardibas in the next phase.
Province 2 will also have better connectivity with the rest of the world when the proposed Kathmandu-Raxaul Railway, Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway, the East-West Electric Railway and Nijgad Airport are built. Chief Minister Raut says Province 2 can easily beat other provinces by capitalising on its geographical advantage, reviving agriculture and investing in health and education.
But some here are skeptical. Bhogendra Jha, a Janakpur-based analyst, says the provincial government has already failed to improve governance and expedite development. He says sarcastically: “If you believe PM KP Oli will turn Nepal into a Singapore in five years, then you can also believe Chief Minister Raut will turn Province 2 into the number one province.”
50% for Madhesi women
The government of Province 2 has identified gender inequality as the root cause of the region’s problems.
Chief Attorney Dipendra Jha puts it this way: “Province 2 is poor and backward because half of its population stays home. If they come out, our human resources will simply double.”
Unveiling its first policies and programs last week, the Province 2 government vowed to allocate half the seats in the state police force to women. Chief Minister Lalbabu Raut has publicly and repeatedly expressed a commitment to allocate 50% seats to women in all state-level structures.
Jha says: “When Madhesi women wear police uniforms and carry guns, it will raise their confidence. It will also help us fight dowry, rape and violence against women.”
The Province 2 government is also developing a mobile app that Madhesi women can use to alert police about rape and domestic violence. If a woman is in trouble, all she has to do is to shake her phone to set off the police alarm.
At a time when the federal government has given just 33% seats to women, and the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) does not even have 33% women in its politburo and central committee, 50% presence of women in Province 2 police would be revolutionary, if it happened.
The Province 2 government has also launched a ‘Save Our Daughters, Educate Our Daughters’ campaign to reduce female foeticide and increase investment in girls’ education. It has introduced a scheme to provide insurance for every Dalit girl child.
Critics say Chief Minister Raut has just copy-pasted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Beti Bachaho, Beti Padhao’ campaign, but women’s rights activists have no problems with the imitation.
Sudha Karna, a Mithila art promoter in Janakpur, says: “Educating a son will benefit one household, but educating a daughter will benefit at least two households.”
“Province 2 wants to be the #1 Province”
Chief Minister Lalbabu Raut spoke to Nepali Times forcefully about his vision for Province 2, even while he was observing a Ramadan fast.
Nepali Times : Where do you see Province 2 in the next five years?
Lalbabu Raut: Province 2 may lag behind the other six provinces in several socio-economic indicators, but it has the potential to emerge as Nepal’s number one province. We have enough fertile land to feed the entire country. And we are also blessed with geographical advantages which other hill provinces lack. Nijgad Airport, Kathmandu-Tarai fast-track highway, and several railway projects will complement our growth and prosperity.
What are your priorities?
I have given priority to reviving agriculture. Encouraging young men to cultivate their lands rather than migrating to the Gulf will be key to transforming Province 2. This will be possible if we can provide them with irrigation, fertiliser, and subsidy. I have also given priority to good governance, health, education and tourism.
What obstacles do you foresee?
We did not have laws, by-laws and a provincial structure to hit the ground running. We are now in the process of passing our own laws and creating our own structure. There is still a reluctance to devolve power to the provinces.
How will your girls’ education program help?
Social ills like caste-based discrimination, dowry and violence against women plague the entire country, but they are more rampant in Province 2. These problems will intensify in a society where female literacy rate is low. In the Madhes, daughters are still deemed to be a burden to their parents, which is why female foeticide is so rampant. Saving daughters will have a multi-dimensional impact.
Naming Province 2
Two of Nepal’s seven provinces have already named themselves: Province 6 is Karnali and Province 4 is Gandaki.
Of the remaining five, Provinces 1, 3, 5 and 7 are likely to name themselves after river basins like the Kosi or geographical regions like ‘Far West’. The Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has an absolute majority in all these provinces, so naming them will not be contentious.
However, it will be trickier in Province 2 which is ruled by two Madhes-based parties. Their leaders are divided over whether to name it Madhes, Mithila or Bhojpura. Some are lobbying for the middle path by calling it either Mithila-Madhes or Mithila-Bhojpura.
Either way, they want to give the province a cultural identity rather than simply naming it after a river like the other provinces have done. Naming Province 2 is so sensitive that few in Janakpur want to risk belling the cat.
When probed, Chief Minister Lalbabu Raut told us: “This is the prerogative of our sovereign legislative assembly, and I don’t want to infringe on their rights by lobbying for a name.”