9-15 February 2018 #896

Trickledown corruption

Rishing village in Tanahu elected Rajendra Krishna Shrestha of the Nepali Congress as village council chair in last year’s local government elections. He is also the NC’s regional head, is a building contractor by profession, and owns JCB excavators. After taking over as the head of the local government he has been giving out infrastructure contracts to friends and relatives who all rent his JCBs. Says an outraged local citizen in Rishing: “We have pointed this out many times, but it looks like everyone is in it together. The village chief is profiteering from his post.”

An investigation in our sister publication, Himal Khabarpatrika, last week uncovered a sordid list of similar collusion and conflict of interest among mayors, village council members and ward chairs who were elected eight months ago.

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Elected contractors, From the Nepali Press

Bulldozing democracy, Om Astha Rai

In fact the Federation of Contractors’ Associations of Nepal proclaims proudly that more than 300 of its members have been elected to positions in local governments. The Federation is still tallying a list of even more members elected to provincial and national assemblies.

Elected representatives can be from any profession. But a common theme among the businessmen who have been recently elected is that after taking office they have proceeded to award themselves contracts, rented out their equipment to local governments, concocted needless infrastructure projects, and left many of them unfinished even after being paid. Our investigation shows that honest administrators who have raised objections to such gangsterism have been sacked, roughed up, or transferred. 

After VDCs and DDCs elected in 1997 lapsed in 2002, as the country was torn apart by conflict, and in the post-war transition, village and district councils were run by a local political cartels known as the ‘All-party Mechanism’. We often reported in this paper that these were nothing more than all-party mechanisms for plunder. Rivers were mined for sand, the Chure hills were quarried, forests were logged, and land was grabbed. The last six months have shown that instead of being curbed, the wholesale ransacking of natural resources has, if anything, increased.

The first local elections in 20 years in April-May 2017 raised hopes that the people would finally elect urban and rural municipal governments that would be accountable. Grassroots democracy would now be empowered to deliver development and social services to the people’s doorsteps. Last year, we predicted optimistically that the new, inclusive local councils would remove kleptocrats and improve governance.

Indeed, in many cities and villages across the country local governments have moved quickly to catch up with lost time. They have formed a nationwide association of village heads and a mayors’ pressure group has been lobbying a reluctant Kathmandu to follow the spirit of the constitution to devolve revenue-generation and decision-making. 

However, as our report shows, it has turned out just as many cynics had feared: the crooks got themselves elected. Contractors who earlier had to bribe VDC and DDC bureaucrats to bag infrastructure deals became candidates for local governments last year. Many of them used the power of money to get themselves elected, and now they no longer have to bribe anyone -- they simply hand over the business to themselves. Although the Nepali Congress tailed as the third largest party in elections to all three tiers of government last year, a majority of elected contractors, it turns out, are from the NC.

It is not the job of the mayor or the village chair to drive an excavator. The people have put great trust on their elected representatives, they must not squander this chance to prove themselves. If they do own businesses, they should divest immediately to avoid conflict of interest. Instead, what we have seen are mayors and village chiefs handing over management of their businesses to relatives or personal secretaries, and making sure their own companies bag contracts or rent their equipment.

Last month’s Himalmedia Public Opinion Survey 2018 showed that the people still have great hope in local governments improving their livelihoods. Provinces 2 and 6, which are the country’s poorest, have the highest percentage of respondents who said that services have improved since local governments took office (See charts, below). Asked what they expect from the new local governments, almost all said they wanted efficient, honest and fast service delivery at the local level. But there is also considerable skepticism about whether the new local councils have the werewithal to fulfill those needs.

The national rot has trickled down to the local level. It is up to the state, civil society and local FM radios to spotlight this reckless abandonment of the promise of democracy.

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Trial and error democracy, Om Astha Rai