Nepali Times
Economic Sense
In search of the Rupee


At Bhadrapur airport recently, when I told a cop I had just returned from India, he started flipping through my passport in search of Indian currency bills.

It reminded me of Kesang Tseten's wonderful documentary In Search of the Riyal. Yes, security personnel at airports will frisk you for things to keep, and why not? Training does not exist in the Nepali bureaucratic dictionary, so they think they have the right to open up people's purses and strip them like their US counterparts do. You will notice this every time you travel through Toxic International Airport (TIA). Foreign travellers are asked for a souvenir or their last rupees, since cops think the non-convertible Nepali rupee is useless outside Nepal. As Nepalis, our heads hang in shame as we watch them carry out their indiscretions right under their superiors' noses. Do they think it is their right to make hay while the sun shines because they have gotten their jobs through bhansun or nepotism?

This Beed often wonders how people can be so bold as to boast of building houses worth ten times their legitimate lifetime earnings. Perhaps it's because people are so ready to congratulate them for discovering a short cut to success.

Why is it that the troublemakers in an organisation are those who get their jobs through relatives? Those who are where they are because of source-force do not understand the value of merit. Will we ever build a meritocratic society? The fact that people will use family connections to land a job working with people they don't even know shows how indifferent they are to the perceptions of corruption.

This Beed keeps on harping on the 'two laddoo syndrome': why would people who bribe gods leave mere mortals alone? It's in our genes! However, more disturbing is how we use obstruction to flaunt power. Is this not a form of corruption too? Look at the way VIPs like the roads to be cleared for their movement. And if this means declaring a holiday on the day one leaves the country, then they've hit the jackpot, never mind the millions of rupees down the drain.

The same mentality can be seen in the Very Ignorant People (another set of VIPs) that like to stop traffic when a wedding janti or procession is going on. With weddings taking place in the thousands each family competes with other to ensure it can block the traffic the longest and create the most problems for commuters. All those who were trying to drive around this Sunday must have experienced the same.

How do we end this mayhem and bring about a change in culture? Is it a sense of civic courtesy that compels people to think about other's rights too? Can someone volunteer at wedding jantis to keep the traffic in order? Can a cop be made to understand that his job is to conduct security checks and not to fleece passengers? Can 2011 be simply devoted to ridding TIA of its toxicity and making the airport memorable for all the right reasons? And Kesang, how about a documentary entitled In Search of the Rupee that exposes all of this!

1. jange
In a country which rewards murder, loot and extortion of thousands with high political office and considers them as revolutionaries , Agrapanthi and the only party representing change surely you can't begrudge a low level employee grabbing a few rupees. Or maybe you would have more respect for the poor guy if he had managed to kill hundreds and loot millions??

2. Arthur
Corruption is certainly very relevant to a column on "economic sense" but the author proposes no concrete economic or even political measures to deal with corruption and only writes vaguely of a need to change the culture (although the connection with a religious culture that offers bribes to gods and so also to mere mortals was illuminating).

jange (unintentionally) highlights that the petty corruption of low level employees cannot be avoided while the higher level employees hold their posts as semi-feudal jagir rights collecting a cut of the loot from below to pass on to the Ministerial gangsters above as rewards for maintaining the system of patronage and looting. (He intended to hit a different target with his usual mantra but forgot to name them so accidentally spoke the truth).

But lets consider the situation after the gangsters at the top have been removed. The culture Ashuosh Tiwari writes about could not change overnight and remnants of it could remain for at least a generation. The lower level employees (and some of the higher level ones) cannot  all be replaced as easily as the Ministers and they will naturally continue with their present culture, as will the people dealing with them.

Nepal will still need capitalist development (based on greed) for some considerable time and the example of China shows how quickly corruption springs directly from "business".

It is certainly inconvenient for business travellers to subjected to petty theft by airport staff, but it is also very convenient and profitable to avoid complying with a regulation or paying a tax by simply giving a bribe instead. Indeed it is rather striking that an economic journalist focuses attention only on the corruption that inconveniences all business at airports and not on the corruption that is convenient for business individually (but economically damaging to business overall).

Presumably the petty forms like at airports can be quickly dealt with by energetically enforcing existing laws, with simple proof from video and audio recordings and "sting" operations.

The offer of a bribe is itself a crime so officials could be compensated for loss of income from bribes by a share in the proceeds of successful prosecutions for which they helped collect convincing proof.

This requires of course a corruption free judiciary and legal profession...

Since the writer is keen on private enterprise, perhaps he could propose  some way to organize businesses that make a good profit from their share of the proceeds of prosecution by organizing the audio and video recording of one side or the other of corrupt transactions.

Meanwhile Baburam Bhatterai took an interesting initiative by offering the option of either an amnesty for proceeds of corruption declared for taxation or confiscation of any property not declared for taxation by the deadline. Presumably the different government established shortly after that deadline has not followed that up, but a future government certainly could.

3. Artha Beed

Jange and Arthur, if you have not read Unleashing Nepal (, please do, a lot of prescriptions have been provided.


4. Anish Dixit
very nice read....Can't agree more with u....(Toxic i/o Tribhuwan-describes everything!!!)

5. Arthur
Thanks for the link Artha Beed. I have now read the brief extracts and all the reviews and will buy the book. (Also reading earlier articles from this column - so far to start of 2008).

Two "marketing" suggestions:

1. Provide .pdf copies of sample chapters for download.

2. Enable Google Books to support searching the entire text plus (slow page by page) access to much more extensive extracts or entire text.

These are standard practices which can only increase both book sales and contacts for consultancy. Your publisher should have done them already. If the publisher resists, insist!

Although I haven't read the book or the rest of your columns yet I cannot resist a comment based on what I have read so far.

You seem to express two major themes:

1. The "rent seeking" limitations of Nepal's capitalists and its relation to what others call "bureaucrat capital".

2. Important leading role of "entrepreneurs" in developing Nepal, as opposed to "politics".

I think there is a rather obvious contradiction between these two themes! How can rent seekers lead social change?

With such a feeble and dependent bourgeoisie a political breakthrough unleashing nepal's entrepreneurs, along with workers and peasants from bureaucrat capital is needed. The few progressive entrepreneurs should not be claiming leadership, since they have demonstrably been unable to achieve this, but rather accepting an important but subordinate role with greater respect for people fighting the essential political battles.

PS I posted a previous version of this from the comment box on the "print" version of this page and got the message "waiting for moderation" but it seems to have disappeared. Suggest checking whether comment box should appear on "print" version at all if it does not work properly.

6. Anonymous

Corruption is a universal phenomenon, developed and underdeveloped countries suffer equally. However, in suggesting changes (and I am sure you would have some prescriptions in your book as well) do you not succumb to advocating the simplistic instead of the simple in your article?

Perhaps, the first step in the direction of corruption, at all levels, is a lack fear that you could be prosecuted for it. This perhaps is about the most basic of human traits - managing risk to personal well being. Since employees at the airport do not fear a loss of their livelihood if they are caught taking money, why won't they take the risk?

It follows, therefore, that this fear be instilled by periodic crack-down on individuals (beauraucrats, businessmen, whoever) and making sure that punishment is carried out. It is likely that this approach would get better results because the enforcers can be monitored and results demanded of them. And it would increase the risk perception, forcing the practice into greater subtlety.

Having said that, I am aware that you have possibly suggested this step in your book. What my criticism emanates from is that I find constant sloganeering irritating. If it, sloganeering that is, worked then Nigerians (by no means godly bribe givers - being Christian and Islamic in equal measure:), Philippines and a whole host of other countries would not be fighting hopelessly against the scourge and would by now be corruption free. 

Furthermore, I would also wonder if the idea of perception aiding corruption should not also occupy more column space. And this follows from my first argument. Simply because people think that by shelling out a bit of money they could break the line - for building permits, registration, admissions to the pubs even - it becomes a self feeding myth. The more people hear what can be done with a bit of palm greasing, the more socially acceptable corruption gets. And once it becomes widely prevalent, Harry Potter and his granddaddy would struggle to contain it. 

So, would you not also talk about managing perceptions some day in the future? (Hopefully suggestions would not include banning the widely followed religion - or its customs). I am kidding, seriously.

Common sense would suggest that actionable solutions are much better than calls on hope, gods and a lame revolution of complicated words. And simple, as you know, trumps simplistic and rhetorical.

7. pilot
It follows, therefore, that this fear be instilled by periodic crack-down on individuals (beauraucrats, businessmen, whoever) and making sure that ..."
And who is going to watch these watchdogs, and the watchdogs of those watchdogs, and so on and so forth. The way to reduce bureaucratic corruption cannot be the addition of more bureaucracy. Mr. Arthabeed mentions in his article that "As Nepalis, our heads hang in shame as we watch them carry out their indiscretions right under their superiors' noses"--why is supervision seemingly not a priority for those supposed supervisors? Simply put, they have no incentive to do so and the same goes for the supervisor of these supervisors. No matter what they do -- or don't do -- their salaries, bonuses, benefits and so forth are guaranteed by the state and no matter how you behave with airport "customers" your probability of getting fired is pretty low, especially for ones with "source-force". Blaming culture, religion, and what have you, can only be an exercise in scapegoating, instead of addressing the root of the problem. The only way out of corruption is for businesses (including airports) to be run by the private sector, only then will the airport administration have a good reason to treat passengers with some decency.

8. jange
The purpose of an airport is to provide a source of income for airport employees. Once you understand that all else becomes clear.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)