Saturday, March 27, 2010

On federal capital district

The Nepali public and all minds working to restructure the country seem to be restive as to who will get their entire piece of the pie. Virtually no attention has been paid to the fact that leaving a little left-over crust might eventually prove a potent nutrient for the entire nation and her citizenry.

By way of constructive criticism, I would like to share my ten cents with the proposed State Restructuring Commission: Please consider including a provision in the constitution for at least one federal capital district or territory. The concept paper by the State Restructuring and Distribution of State Power Committee dwells amply on the provincial capitals but stops short of naming the national capital, suggesting that the federal government could change the national capital by two-thirds majority votes of the federal legislature.

So far, the general street sense is that Kathmandu, the proposed capital of the Newa state, will presumably be the national capital as well. Administratively, a federal capital within a provincial capital will trigger many conflicts of interests between the provincial and federal government, over matters of governance, taxation, security, public services, etc. This has been an ongoing problem for Canada, for example, since Ottawa, the country's capital, is within the state of Ontario.

In fact, many Canadians have for long regretted borrowing their national capital from a state capital. In 1887, five years after the formation of the Canadian Confederation, John Hamilton Gray, one of the fathers of that Confederation famously bemoaned: “At the time of the Convention, one mistake occurred: No provision was made for creating a federal district for the capital, and withdrawing it from the exclusive control of the local legislature of one of the provinces.”

The US constitution, however, foresaw the problem and included a provision (Article 1, Section 8) stipulating that the Congress could exercise exclusive legislation to create a district for the seat of federal government, by cession of particular states not exceeding ten miles square. Finally, in 1790, the District of Columbia or Washington DC was created.

In Nepal, the spatial concept of “national capital” in public debates rarely extends beyond the confines of our “one ring road” mentality. Compare that with Beijing, a direct-controlled municipality that a decade ago had 3 ring roads and now has 6, and more are in the pipeline.

My point is we need to plan ahead keeping in mind several hundred years of potential growth of our national nerve center and thus fundamentally redefine our concept of national capital in the new constitution. There is also more to it than the long-rehearsed call for “shifting” the capital to Chitwan or Dang.

We should envision the capital not just as a “city” but as a self-governing entity at par with a state or province with a sound measure of federal control or supervision. The governance and maintenance of a national capital territory is too important to be left to the provincial government and politics, no matter how efficient these can be. A nation’s reputation rests on its capital. In this globalized world, more than ever, the capital area must be world-class in infrastructure, communication facilities and services as well as administration and management. If Nepal aspires for such a capital territory, we must agree that the squalid, constricted Kathmandu is not the option; sooner or later we will have to build one from scratch like they have done in Brasilia (Brazil) and Abuja (Nigeria) and Canberra (Australia), all designated as capital territories.

Many nations have constitutional provisions for a federal capital district. Argentina, the Philippines, Colombia, Indonesia, Mexico, Mali, Venezuela, Malaysia, Taiwan, North and South Korea have designed their capitals within a special national territory covering an area from a couple of hundred to some 3,000 square km. The reputation of Seoul National Capital Area as a “Special City” or “Digital City” rests on careful planning and management of the futuristic capital region.

We don’t have to look too far. The Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) is an entity provided for by the country’s constitution. Carefully planned and built on an executive ordinance, it is one of the most modern of South Asian capital areas, consisting of eight specific zones—administrative, diplomatic, residential, educational, industrial, commercial, rural and green areas. The National Capital Territory of Delhi (NCT) is another example next door.

We need to think big now, if we want to act big tomorrow. For instance, what location is seismically and geologically appropriate for a future capital district with high-rises and an excellent subway system? The capital has to be for the national interest, for national unity, but not at the cost of the rights of the citizens living there (as in Washington DC). We need to choose a neutral location since borrowing a province’s capital can alienate or antagonize other provinces. It also has to be economically, naturally and geo-strategically suitable.

We cannot build such a city state, or federal municipality or federal capital district or territory overnight, but we can allocate a few hundred square km of lands in a couple of regions like we have done for our natural reserves. By doing so, we could avoid future complications in acquiring lands from provincial governments. At the least, we can start the work by leaving a distinctive imprint of our vision in the constitution, so future generations will definitely find the space to realize our dream.

Published in Republica, March 27, 2010.