Putting Nepal’s new constitution to the test


On 20 September, 2015, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) overwhelmingly passed the country’s long-debated and long-awaited democratic constitution. Of the 598 members, 507 voted for the new constitution, 25 voted against it and 66 abstained. Democracy and labour advocates both in Nepal and around the world welcomed the vote as a means of ensuring lasting peace following Nepal’s ten-year civil war from 1996 to 2006 in which some 17,000 people died.

Moreover, it is hoped that the new constitution will make way for recovery efforts from April’s earthquake, which have stalled due to the lack of a representative government.

Earlier this month, Nepal elected Communist Party leader Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli as its Prime Minister; he will be responsible for implementing the new constitution.

“Nepal has dreamed of having a constitution for 65 years, but we were never able to to do it,” Bishnu Ramal, President of the Joint Trade Union Coordination Centre of Nepal (JTUCC), President of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) and former CA member, told Equal Times.

Advocates hailed the inclusive drafting and consultation process, and the diverse human and social rights guaranteed in the constitution. As well as the right to employment, banning all forms of slavery and ensuring employment quotas for minorities and socially-excluded Nepalis, the new constitution enshrines LGBTI rights. For example, Nepal has become the third country in the world after New Zealand and Australia to issue third gender passports.

But not everyone is pleased about the new constitution. Women’s rights advocates fear that it maintains the country’s patriarchal history, while many from Nepal’s poor southern regions, whose representatives opposed or abstained during the constitution’s vote, feel that the new federal system will under-represent and marginalise them [editor’s note: Nepal now comprises seven newly-created, as-yet-unnamed states].

“The new constitution ignored the feminist movement altogether,” said Manjushree Thapa, a writer and Nepali women’s rights advocate. “Not only can women not confer citizenship to their children independently of men, the children of Nepali women and foreign men will be barred from high office.”

There are also concerns that Nepal’s giant neighbour and major trading partner, India, is interfering in the process as it seeks to exert its power over the small, landlocked country.

“India has undue expectations,” said Ramal. “They want to micromanage Nepali political life. They want to decide who controls what.”

The current blockades along the southern border with India have cost Nepal an estimated US$1 billion, and fuel stocks have been reduced to such low levels that many fear the country’s forests – amongst the best preserved in the world – will suffer as people turn to firewood for power.

Long process

Although it is a small country, with a population of 24 million, Nepal is incredibly diverse, with dozens of languages, religions, and ethnic groups within its borders.

“Nepal is a country of minorities. We have 125 ethnic groups, we speak 123 dialects and languages,” said Ramal. “None of the groups are the majority, and the largest group [Khas/Chhetri] has just 17 per cent off the population.”

Its history is as complex as its national makeup. Nepal was never directly colonised, and was ruled as an absolute monarchy by the Shah dynasty of kings until 1950. Even then, through a series of constitutions, elections and parliaments, the monarchy maintained power up to the new millennium.

In 1996, a Maoist insurgency erupted in the mountainous, rural regions of the country, aimed at replacing Nepal’s parliamentary monarchy with a people’s republic, in response to the centralisation of power and resources in the capital city of Kathmandu. This started a civil war that only ended with a peace deal in 2005. In 2007, an interim constitution took the dramatic step of ending the country’s monarchy and setting up a CA charged with writing Nepal’s permanent, inclusive constitution.

“Since [the] comprehensive accord with insurgents, [labour and civil society] have mobilised to make the new constitution through the Constituent Assembly,” said Ramal.

The process was not meant to take so long. The first CA was dissolved in 2012 after failing to agree on a constitution, and a second CA was convened after elections in 2013. That is why, for Ramal, the current constitution is so important for the country.

“Nepal has dreamed of having a constitution since 1950 when we got some democratic rights, but we were never able to do,” said Ramal. “[It is] a very historic moment because we fulfill the dreams of our forefathers from 65 years ago.”


Writing a constitution that would please everyone was an impossible challenge, according to Binda Pandey a Nepalese member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

“Having such a diverse society, not everybody can be totally satisfied, but we still have to ensure our rights as citizens, women, workers and different ethnicities.”

Moreover, while the constitution includes several strong clauses on issues such as social security and workers’ rights, what remains to be seen is how Prime Minister Prasad Oli , and his incoming government will implement them. “Many rights have been ensured [in the constitution], but our question is whether they will implemented properly or not,” said Pandey.

The other big concern is India. According to Pandey and Ramal, India is opposed to several clauses in the constitution and has expressed its frustration through an unofficial blockade of the country. Nepal, which receives all of its fuel, and numerous other basic necessities from India, is suffering as a consequence.

“We feel our Indian colleagues are playing against us, knowing our limitations,” said Ramal. “35 per cent of Nepal’s economy is reliant on India.”

“The constitution is our internal matter,” Pandey emphasised. “India should not interfere.”

Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: the massive7.8 magnitude earthquake that devastated many regions in central Nepal this April. Over 9,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, but reconstruction efforts have been limited.

“Because of [the ongoing constitutional] process, we were not able to quickly implement reconstruction, or put a recovery plan up to now,” said Ramal. “We are expecting that by the creation of national government...then the process will be started.”

For Pandey, this means ensuring that Nepal’s labour force is part of the reconstruction effort. If successfully implemented, this would provide economic opportunities for workers to stay in Nepal rather than go abroad, as over 500,000 people do every year.

“We should give preference to mobilise our labour source within the nation rather than sending [them] out,” said Pandey. Remittances from migrants account for 30 per cent of Nepal’s GDP, and the country’s instability and lack of strong governance were major factors in many Nepalis choosing to work, often in perilous conditions of forced labour, in Gulf nations and India.

For Panday, the constitution is just the first step towards ensuring the rights of migrant workers and building a stronger domestic economy for workers.

“Migrant workers rights should be protected,” she said, “But beyond that, government initiatives should be used to generate jobs in Nepal.” The earthquake recovery process will be the first test of whether the constitution can be a catalyst to transform the economy.