Nepali Times
State Of The State
Corruption, Nepalis and the Expat


When President George W Bush feels comfortable enough to bomb Iraq on a whim, it would be unreasonable to expect his envoy to a poor country to practice diplomatic niceties. His Excellency Ralph Frank wasn't just being frank when he alluded to the dreaded C-word. He was the swashbuckling American cowboy itching to take on the Injuns. We are expected to be impressed and applaud the ambassador for his courage in calling a spade a spade, and some heavyweight journalists dutifully obliged. Waxing eloquent about powerful envoys probably has its advantages.

These days, it's fashionable to berate Corruption at the first opportunity. Often, corruption is portrayed as the root of all evil-it is almost as if all our woes would disappear if we could only get rid of this menace. Columnists full of righteous ire but little understanding of social dynamics urge us to eradicate it, thinking it is as easy as doing away with the small pox virus or carriers of malaria. Politicians, not unnaturally, are portrayed as the prime carriers of the corruption pathogen. So what do we do, eradicate politicians with diplomatic pesticide?

The argument that democracy has given a fillip to kickbacks is inherently implausible. Graft is as old as human society, but we hear about Lauda Airs more often today simply because such obscenities have become more transparent, and lewd talk about corruption more possible. Certainly, Nepal has no monopoly over this, the true oldest profession, in a world where there are Bofors and the Qattarocchis, and Bill Clintons leaving White Houses providing clemency to certain 'Rich' people.

Let us be clear about this. The tycoons of today haven't become what they are by dint of hard work alone. The tainted money of a wealthy first generation becomes "safe money" by the second, matures into a "family fortune" by the third, and ends up being squeaky-clean "old money" by the fourth. Going back to the American landscape, it was after all the robber barons or their scions who endowed today's philanthropic foundations that are at the forefront of raising consciousness on issues of social and economic justice.

Capitalism is based on avarice, and corruption is an inalienable component of it. As is often said, the only way of getting rid of corruption is by making it legal. Look at where fear of corruption has put our tourism industry, where the national airline cannot even lease, much less buy, a single aircraft in a world awash with ready-to-go wide bodies. Surely kickbacks played a part in supplying Royal Nepal Airlines in the late Panchayat era with the two aircraft which have been the mainstay of its international fleet, the American-made Boeing 757s.

Deriding corruption has become popular simply because it distracts us from real hard issues-inequality, exploitation, and the dedication of the power elite to continue with the status quo. Among the donors, the focus on corruption is popular because it shifts the onus completely on Nepali shoulders and the uncomfortable question, "So what were you doing since the 1950s (when USAID joined us in our development crusade)?" need not be asked or answered.

"Old corruption is all right, let's stop the rotation," goes the argument. Hypothetically, let us assume that corruption is eradicated. How will that alter the fact that in 1998, the top 20 percent of the world's population consumed 86 percent of goods and services, while the bottom 20 percent (including us) had to make do with only about 1.3 percent? His Excellency Ralph Frank must be aware that the assets of his three wealthiest countrymen are more than the combined GNP of all the Least Developed Countries and their 600 million people put together. No wonder Gayatri Spivak reads "globalised" as "Englished", and the "national interest" of United States as the masquerade

of globalisation.

The paternalistic power elite love the order of binary opposites. Dichotomies like good/bad, right/wrong, order/anarchy provide them with an opportunity to display their power, and determine what is desirable and worthwhile. As the sole dominating power of the unipolar world, the US takes its role as the global policeman with dead seriousness. And of what use is police power when there are no culprits to whip around?

The World Bank defines corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain. If that definition is applied, all our rulers prior to the overthrow of the Ranas were irredeemably corrupt. But just like the inequality explanation, this historical-cultural apology doesn't lead us anywhere either. What we need to concentrate on instead is building a system of checks and balances in order to control corruption at the policy level. The rot has to be stemmed at the top, because it's from there that the poison seeps down. Ironically, it's people at the top who shout the loudest about corruption. It's easy to sneer when you sit pretty in the safety of an upper-class cocoon.

One feasible way to go about tackling Corruption could be by making people in power declare not only their assets, but also their sources of income. The taxmen can take over from there, who, in turn, can be watched over by constitutional authorities, who are scrutinised by the public via the prying eyes of the media. It's not a foolproof method-there are none-but it is a good way to begin. You will be surprised by the number of people who live regally without any known sources of income, and never feel the need to pay a paisa to the exchequer.

That said, there is no need to be too pessimistic. Unlike the trends elsewhere, corruption has come home to roost in Nepal, and this not as bad a thing as you might think. Prior to the People's Movement, corruption had wings, and the booty flew to safe havens abroad. These days, corruption moves around visibly on wheels. Sumptuous palaces are built, but on Nepali soil. Kickbacks which stay in the country constitute a form of capital accumulation, and there is no one doubting that since the demise of the Panchayat corrupt commoners have played their part in the distribution of ill-gotten income.

It is difficult to guess the amount that got stashed away in Swiss banks during the opaque Panchayat days, but Ranas habitually decamped to India with their loot. Padma in Ranchi, Khadga in Sagar, Dev in Musoorie, Mohan in Bangalore-Indian cities are full of Ranas who "inherited" the blood and sweat of Nepali peasants, and went away with it to live a life of luxury. Foreign consultants and experts living off the aid that comes into the country in the form of loans for poor Nepalis do something similar, particularly those individuals (you know who you are) who have little to give but get extensions year after year on the indulgence of aid agency hakims. Foreign consultants and experts, by and large, take away what should have been ours.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)