Nepali Times
Economic Sense
The craft of graft


s the rocket\'s red glare and the bombs bursting in air rent the night sky this Tihar, Artha Beed's thoughts turned once more to the familiar subject of corruption. Why would firecrackers remind anyone of graft? Good question. In case you didn't know, firecrackers are actually illegal in this country. They are banned; they're contraband. But going by the sound of explosions in Kathmandu this year, you'd have thought there was a civil war going on. Anyone caught smuggling crackers into the Valley has his consignment seized at the Thankot customs post. From there, the stuff finds an underground conduit to the bazaars of Asan almost overnight. Says one trader, when asked who his suppliers are: "You want me to tell you? It's like the dance restaurants, the cops have the monopoly over the firecracker trade."

Corruption stinks more than the garbage heaps that keep building up outside my house. It has become an acceptable way of life, and the more one thinks of it the more difficult it seems to uproot from the system. Crises are created for corruption to thrive. It could be the sugar shortage, or the hoarding of petroleum products. The business-bureaucracy nexus thrives on creating artificial scarcity. The government official and the businessmen settle their deals directly, be it the profit of a truck of sugar or a tanker of petrol. Of course, the payment terms are strict, delivery of money in cash on the day the goods are delivered.

Tihar gifts have developed as another interesting way of returning favours. Boxes of whisky or a velvet box containing unspecified jewellery have replaced boxes of sweets. Or gift vouchers to sari and jewellery shops. These vouchers can be encashed at the designated shops, all of which show how we are refining the art of corruption. Any day now, car keys will change hands. We have used cultural and religious events to sanitise a transaction which is in essence stealing, and therefore breaks the Fourth Commandment of just about every religion. These new developments have made the ferrying of passengers by white licence plate vehicles on bhai tika seems absolutely insignificant.

The fact that gambling is synonymous with Tihar has also provided a perfect platform for ostentatious displays of wealth. People play stakes that are sometimes several times their annual salaries, and at the end of everything they might have just won or lost money that is equivalent to what an average middle-class Nepali would have to work for a couple of hundred years to earn. Black money lights up Tihar, and the goddess of wealth has never complained.
Corruption rules, be it in determining what flies in the air or what is driven on the roads. Two-stroke motorbikes are trying to make a comeback, pending certain clandestine transactions. Three-wheeler electric and cooking gas vehicles have been banned from inside the Ring Road, and microbuses seem to be making macro-linings to some pockets. Why choke the valley roads with public transport it cannot cope with? The purchase and lease of jets by the national flag carrier has become the national emblem of corruption, and now parliament has decided to take over.

Enough lip service and hollow gestures. We have the institutions to deal with graft, but the position of Chief of the Commission for the Investigation on Abuse of Authority (CIAA) has been lying vacant for the last nine months. Will someone be appointed if enough is paid under the table? Someone has to make a start somewhere. Are you up to it, Suryanathji?

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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)