17-23 May 2013 #656

Watching the watchdog

The new auditor general can counter balance the controversial appointment of a new CIAA head

Even the staunchest critics of the appointment of the chief justice to head the government have now decided to go along with that violation of the fundamental democratic tenet of the separation of powers. We can live with it as long as it ensures another basic democratic exercise: elections.

However, the inability of the Khil Raj Regmi regime to even announce a date for elections has raised questions about whether the tail is wagging the dog because he is so beholden to the Maoists who gave him the post.

The appointment of Lok Man Singh Karki as the head of the corruption watchdog has been compared to letting a fox guard the chicken coop, but it is actually much worse than that. Karki has the propensity to short-circuit what remains of democratic checks and balances by threatening to prosecute political rivals. The troubling contempt charge this week against Kantipur and its columnist Vijay Kumar Pande also illustrates just why a sitting judge should never play prime minister.

The unseemly political barter deal that let Karki head the CIAA did yield one desirable result though. For the first time in six years we actually have an auditor general and the NC’s nominee couldn’t have been a better candidate. Bhanu Prasad Acharya is a soft-spoken, seasoned bureaucrat known for his competence, integrity, and no-nonsense style. What a contrast to Karki, the man that the AG’s office is supposed to work with to control endemic corruption.

To be sure, Acharya has huge challenges ahead of him. In the absence of oversight, the four-party syndicate has made looting the budget standard operating procedure from Singha Darbar to Musikot Khalanga. Allocations for infrastructure have become slush funds for political parties. The budget is sanctioned and spent year after year, but the bridge is never built. This year’s audit report was submitted to the president on 16 April, but hasn’t even been printed. The veracity of the government’s accounts with the Rastra Bank hasn’t been reconciled for three years. Lack of internal controls even for donor-assisted projects is missing. Money meant for former combatants in the cantonments were just handed over to a minister who never had to account for it.

The auditor general’s office is an essential part of a four-pillar oversight mechanism for public financial management that also includes the executive, the parliamentary accounts committee, and the Financial Comptroller General of Accounts. The extended political transition has meant that all four pillars, even if they exist, are tottering. Maybe it is too much to expect just one person to stem the rot. But Acharya’s appointment is a start.

Firstly, he can counterbalance the CIAA, which has already shown signs that it will be an agency for tokenism and political vendetta. The auditor general will have to move rapidly to address the backlog of irregularities in spending: some inadvertent failures to follow financial procedures, but most of them blatant and systematic violations of budgetary discipline.

The auditor general’s job is not just to pinpoint leakage, but to retroactively rectify irregularities and conduct performance audits to make sure there is efficiency in the system. And in a country where conflict and fluid politics have disrupted the delivery of basic services, it essentially means not wasting scarce resources and getting the biggest bang for the development buck.

The auditor general doesn’t just serve the government of the day, he serves the people. And at least we now have a sentry in place to see there is no run on the budget, that rules are followed, and systemic deficiencies are addressed until we have a transparent, accountable government.

And if Acharya is not allowed to work, or if the CIAA under Karki starts a political witch-hunt, civil society may be forced to set up a conscience-keeping body.

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