1-7 March 2013 #645

Rotten to the core

Nepal’s legal system has been too kind to those at the top who have presided over the plunder of the state
Anurag Acharya
A string of investigative reports published in various mainstream and regional newspapers and magazines in recent months indicates that corruption is deeply embedded in Nepal’s public institutions and has actually gained social acceptance.

The magnitude of malfeasance has surpassed all norms and has become standard operating procedure for citizens when they interface with the state. Nepal has earned the notoriety of being the most corrupt nation in South Asia, we have overtaken Bangladesh and only Afghanistan is worse.

One of the investigative reports concerns a ‘blind’ war victim riding a motorbike to the VDC office to claim compensation. Another is about the government paying for the reconstruction of infrastructure supposedly destroyed during the conflict, but that never really existed.

Last week, Paschim Nepal Daily in Dhangadi published Trishna Kunwar’s investigative story exposing how local strongmen have been plundering community forests in the Chure hills of Dadeldhura and Kanchanpur districts for the last two decades in active collusion with the officials at the Department of Forests, protected by lawmakers and ministers in subsequent governments.

The story did not get much attention in Kathmandu, partly because the far-west may as well be on another planet. That the story was ignored by the Kathmandu mainstream press, is a reminder that power of the media lies not just in what it seeks to investigate, but also what it chooses not to.

“There has been no illegal logging in the district in the last one and half year,” claims director Braj Kishore Yadav at the Forest Department. Yadav also maintains that those found to be involved in illegal logging have already faced unspecified departmental action. This is an eye wash to let the big fish off the hook. Even in cases where the corrupt are actually convicted, Nepal’s legal system has been been too kind towards those at the top who have presided over the plunder of state resources.

Despite being charged with embezzling over Rs 30 million, NC leader Chiranjivi Wagle who was serving jail term since March 2011, was granted 20 per cent waiver in jail term and fine. He was released in April last year. In the Sudan APC scam, the court sentenced three former police chiefs who were holding office during that period, while their political bosses who gave the orders went scot free.

Of the 32 investigative stories commissioned by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) this year, 23 were on corruption in state institutions at various levels, three of them published in the last six days. Almost all the stories point towards organised corruption with local strongmen colluding with government officials and party leaders. Journalists who have reported them have got death threats.

Often, the rise in corruption is attributed to ineffective laws to curb it. However, this traditional notion fails to explain why nations that punish corruption with stringent laws are also among the most corrupt.

At Ratna Park, Sharada Jha Bhusal (pictured) has been on a hunger strike for the past week protesting corruption in Mahottari. She is getting weaker and weaker, but no government official or politician has been there to see her. Few journalists have reported on the protest. Bhusal says she is on strike because all other attempts to curb the state’s theft of citizens failed. Bhusal is doubly disadvantaged, she is from a neglected district and she is a woman.

Part of the reason Bhusal’s crusade is such a lonely one is because corruption has become so accepted in Nepali society. The state of impunity means no one is punished and there is no deterrence - individuals exhibit dishonest behaviour without experiencing any guilt or remorse.

Anurag Acharya is the Program Manager at the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ).

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