27 June - 3 July 2014 #713

When graft is a given

Numbed by endemic corruption, we are losing our capacity for outrage
Anurag Acharya
Six years ago, former Home Minister and MJF leader Bijay Kumar Gachhadar declared 986gm of gold when he was minister in the Madhav Nepal government.

Today he owns 4,640gm whose market price is approximately Rs20 million. Gachhadar has not furnished clear details of land and other fixed property or cash he owns.

Interestingly, gangster Sanjay Sah who was launched into politics by Gachhadar himself declared gold worth Rs20 million when he was minister in the same cabinet.

The incumbent finance minister and NC leader Ram Sharan Mahat has declared 1,102 gm of gold but refrained from providing details on value of diamond and precious stones he owns. Similarly Minister of Information and Communication, Minendra Rijal of the NC who had declared cash worth Rs 1.5 million when he first became minister six years ago has now tripled his worth.

Rijal had declared stocks worth Rs 1.7 million in nine companies. Today, his stocks in 19 companies are worth at least Rs 10 million. His investment in Manjushree Investment and Finance alone has increased from Rs 125,000 to Rs 5 million.

These are just the wealth declared under a mandatory disclosure policy for public servants and obtained by investigative reporter Yasodha Timsina under the Freedom of Information Act. The officials have justified the possession of all that jewellery as ‘dowry earnings’ and ancestral property. The declarations are mostly incomplete, unusual or implausible. Most leaders have not fully declared cash holdings in their various bank accounts, or divulged details of fixed assets and company shares.

The media has often raised the issue of institutionalised corruption in Nepal’s bureaucracy and politics, patting its own back for exposing a few rotten apples. But rarely have we dared to dig deep into the barrel where the rot really lies.

An investigative journalist who used to specialise in muckraking admitted his frustration recently when he found evidence of officials in the anti-graft watchdog itself involved in cover-ups. “The same people who were being investigated for corruption by the CIAA are now in the CIAA,” he said.

When the fox is tasked to guard the chicken coop, it raises questions about the intention of those who made the appointments or backed it. This has further entrenched a sense of impunity, and an institution designed to ensure good governance and the rule of law has itself lost its integrity.

When a gangster charged with multiple counts of extortion and attempted murder is caught red-handed with millions in cash, illegal guns, smuggled wildlife contraband, but still manages to walk scot-free for ‘lack of evidence’, it is time to worry.

When a judge miraculously presides over four different cases and hands down identical judgments that compromise public health, it erodes public faith in the justice system. Retired officers have started to speak out about endemic corruption and under-table dealings in the police force, further shattering public confidence in the rule of law.

Last month, the Centre for Investigative Journalism commissioned a sting operation exposing hospitals buying patients from ambulance drivers to bring patients to their emergency with the clear intention of extorting the sick. The undercover reporter recorded phone conversations with nine hospitals, but no action has been taken and the practice continues.

A few months earlier, another report exposed how public money is embezzled in the districts in the name of fighting illiteracy. There have been a series of reports in the mainstream press about the political protection enjoyed by owners of quarries and crushers which are plundering the Chure Hills and the complicity of the local administration.

In Sarlahi alone, 2,500 hectares of forests under the Sagarnath Forestry Development Project have been encroached on by dozens of illegal sand mining and crusher companies smuggling aggregates to feed the construction boom in India. Efforts by the government to declare the Chure a protected area is facing fierce opposition from ministers within the ruling NC.

While big crooks with political connections flout the law without fear of being caught, the police under Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam arrest a man for posting comments critical of police on Facebook. The Law Minister is pushing a contempt of court law in the legislature to deter media from exposing corruption in the judiciary.

From education to health, forest, energy and local infrastructure development, corruption has become so entrenched that even investigative journalists are losing their motivation to expose them. And in the public there is a sense of apathy, and acceptance that graft is a given.

When the state itself protects thieves, greedy legislators demand millions, the corruption watchdog turns into a lapdog, crime is normalised in the public conscience. When the public loses its capacity for outrage, democracy itself is weakened.


Read also:

Pay on delivery

Fragile mountains

“Political parties most corrupt”

CIAA woes

Clean up politics, Ratna S Shrestha

comments powered by Disqus