Stop the plunder

Murari Sharma

Someone I know recently visited a village in Sindhupalchok, not far from the capital, with a team only to find that no one had arrived there before them with the relief materials the villagers annihilated by the April and May earthquakes desperately needed. Think of far-flung places where the victims have been fending for themselves.

However, our ministers were in a hurry not to help the victim but to secure sinecures for them and their colleagues. They do not care about the children who have lost their parents, sick who need treatment, hungry who need food and homeless who need a roof over their heads, faced with the quakes and the roaring monsoon.

The donors’ pledge of 4.4 billion dollars for reconstruction in the recent conference is welcome. But if our leaders believe the money will come no matter how selfish they become, they will be sorely mistaken. If they do not change their attitude, the pledged money will never show up.

Our leaders’ attitude has a name. Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli calls it plunder. He has said, “To tax the community for the advantage of a class is not protection; it is plunder.”

US political philosopher Lysander Spooner calls it crime. He has asserted, “The greatest of all crimes are the wars that are carried on by governments, to plunder, enslave, and destroy mankind.”

For starters, Nepal’s ministers approved a bill and introduced it in the Constituent Assembly to provide generous facilities and security to former officials — pension, staff, vehicles, accommodation, fuel, maintenance, security, etc. Former presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers, speakers, home ministers and justices and any other person designated by government will enjoy these excessively generous facilities, most of them for life.

A similar ordinance was issued three years ago and the legal professional Bharat Mani Jangam had obtained a stay order against it from the Supreme Court. Now the bill has been revived. I am pleased that the speaker of the house has ordered to put the bill on hold. But it could be revived any time.

I am not against a modest pension and security consistent with threat assessment for the retired president and vice president and pension for members of parliament based on the length of their service. Other countries provide such facilities on those bases.

However, Western countries introduced these facilities for retired officials only when they became rich. The United States introduced pension for its president and vice president only in 1958. A former president now receives half of his salary as pension and a lump sum of 96,000 dollars a year for staff expenses, enough for one senior or two junior staff. The Secret Service provides him security.

Britain’s former prime ministers were given a small pension only since 1937. Since 1991, they get half of their salary as pension and a small lump sum for office and staff costs. Threat assessment determines their security requirements.

Neither the former American presidents nor the former British premiers are given cars, fuel, residence, utility charges, and maintenance expenses.

However, politicians of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, want it all, want it big and want it now. Although most politicians, all over the world, are deemed as shameless, selfish and greedy, Western leaders look like saints in front of Nepali leaders who our out to plunder the treasury with both hands.

For proof, you do not need to see beyond the bill in question. Both the timing and the content of the bill have been deeply inauspicious and problematic.

As for the time, our wise leaders never thought for a moment how the bill would be perceived by the public and the international community at a time when one-third of the country’s population, the victims of devastating earthquakes in April and May this year, have no food, no water, no house and no security. They shelved it quickly on the eve of the donors’ conference on 25 June 2015 to control damage.

The content — the facilities and coverage — is “lavish” even in the words of Speaker Subash Nembang. The facilities — pension, a vehicle, accommodation, fuel, personal assistants, maintenance costs, security, etc. for life — are insanely lavish.  The coverage is simply unjustifiable. Most outrageous, the government could provide these facilities to anyone it deems fit, which means all cronies of senior leaders.

Sure, the president and vice president will retire as soon as their replacements are elected under the new constitution. When they retire, they should be given the facilities and security the country can manage. However, such facilities should be available as long as these former officials do not engage in any gainful employment.

But why provide facilities for former prime ministers, speakers, ministers and judges? Former prime ministers, speakers, and ministers continue to engage in politics, which is gainful employment, until they die. Former judges get pension from their long employment already.

Lavish privileges are both morally wrong and financially unsustainable. They are immoral because they are, in Disraeli’s word, a plunder by politicians when the poor people are toiling in poverty, destitution and the devastation, more so after the recent earthquakes. Ordinary people have no safety net, while their leaders fortify their privileges.

Such privileges are untenable for a poor country where 60 percent people live in poverty. If the proposed bill is approved, nearly 50 people will be eligible for such facilities, excluding those who get them under government discretion.  The government will have to fork out more than 1,000 million rupees every year just to finance these privileges.

Here is the ‘back-of-the-envelope-calculation.’ At least 200 vehicles will be needed — 50 for the former officials and 100 for their office, staff and security. Our leaders want nothing less than a Japanese Pajero jeep that costs around 15 million rupees each. That is 750 million; another 750 million for other 100 vehicles. Another 1500 million for salaries, fuel, telephone, water, and electricity, etc.

That comes to more than 3,000 million rupees for five years. Add another 3,000 million rupees for the cost of house and office and their maintenance expenses. The total for five years easily crosses 6,000 million rupees in five years.

With that money, you can build 30,000 houses for the disaster victims at 200,000 rupees each. No, Nepali tax payers cannot afford to look the other way when their pockets are being picked by the government for the privileges of a few politicians.

Sadly, our leaders have engaged in “ulphako dhan, phupuko shraddha” with taxpayers’ money. What is important now, building dwellings for the victims and feeding them to keep them alive or lavishing sinecures on our already privileged leaders? We should stop looking the other way when our leaders clean our national till.

The international community can withhold their money if they find our leaders reckless, but we Nepali people cannot. Therefore, we must all rise against the blatant plunder our leaders are planning to mount. Do not take solace that the bill is on hold now; it can be resurrected quietly when the dust settles down.

As for the retiring president and vice president, the government should introduce a separate and modest package of facilities and security now. We can revisit this issue in 10 years if we acquire growth and capacity to provide public safety net for ordinary citizens and to support privileges for other former officials, without stretching our begging bowl.

Help the poor victims of disasters, not the privileged politicians.

Nepal should earn donors’ trust for effective reconstruction

Murari Sharma

The government of Nepal has invited the international community to a conference it is planning to host in Kathmandu to seek support for the reconstruction of earthquake devastated homes and infrastructures. However, its development partners do not trust the political parties of Nepal.

Nepal relies heavily on foreign assistance for its development activities. Therefore, its government need to take several measures before it can earn the much-needed trust from the donor community and make the conference a success.

The need for reconstruction, generated by the major April and May earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks, is gargantuan. The quakes have killed nearly 9,000 people and destroyed or damaged over 60,000 private houses and 700 temples as well as several roads and other physical infrastructures. The total physical damage has been estimated to the magnitude of 70 billion rupees (Rs.100=US$1).

Obviously, the victims of the quakes do not have a roof over their head, food to eat, seeds to sow, oxen to plough their land, and capacity to sustain them until the next crop arrives. The tremors have destroyed or buried them all and impoverished Nepal, a least developed country with 409 US dollars per capita income in 2014, further.

While the needs are genuine and pressing, the circumstances to fulfill them are questionable. Nepal is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. There is massive fraud and cheating in the tax system. Domestically raised and donor-provided resources are misused and misappropriated widely and consistently. Few are caught for misappropriation and let go under political pressure.

According to Transparency International, the country ranked 126th in corruption perception index in 2014. In 2013, it ranked 116th. Although its ranking has somewhat fluctuated over the years, it is clear that Nepal is one of the worst in corruption. Corruption with impunity is more prevalent among political leaders than among other elites.  This creates a trust problem with donors.

Such trust deficit was evident when donors insisted on distributing their relief materials and using their financial contributions by themselves in the wake of the quakes. Despite the Nepal government’s repeated requests to channel their financial contributions through the Prime Minister’s Fund and relief materials through government agencies, the donors from within and without have been reluctant to heed.

The conference would afford an opportunity for the government to inform the international community about the scale of devastation and the need for reconstruction, to outline the reconstruction program, to convince donors that the government is serious about implementing the program faithfully, and generate the colossal resources for rebuilding. However, the conference is unlikely to sway the donors, unless the government takes several concrete measures to build the requisite trust.

First, there must be credible local government to undertake reconstruction activities at grassroots. Unfortunately, there have been no local elections over a decade. In absence of local government, donors trust grassroots consumers and victims groups, more than the Singha Durbar, with their resources. Kathmandu, however, is headed precisely in the opposite direction — towards forming a national government and creating a powerful reconstruction authority to centralize reconstruction activities. That is a non-sequitur.

Second, the government needs to change the current ministerial line up.  While Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is a mixed bag– donors trust him for being relatively clean but find him ineffective, some of his powerful ministers have become a pernicious drag on the government. Koirala should show guts to remove them and introduce new and clean faces to earn the trust of the donor community.

Third, the prime minister must commit and make concrete provisions for the transparent deployment of resources that are collected from within and outside for monitoring and course correction, as necessary. The selling and the misuse of relief materials at the behest of senior ministers and lawmakers have not sent a positive message.

Fourth, aggressive and robust anti-corruption measures are essential to win donors’ confidence. The government needs to reinforce the mechanisms and policies to strengthen accountability, to bring suspected embezzlers to book and to punish those who have been found guilty. The prime minister can start this process by removing the ministers who have become a liability for him due to their alleged and evident corruption.

Fifth, the idea of national government must be abandoned. While the international community is pleased that the political parties of Nepal have agreed on the contours — though working out the details would be no less challenging — of the new constitution after a long time, the motive behind this agreement does not give them room for comfort. They know, as most of us Nepalis do, the main reason behind the Big Four’s agreement is national government. At least democratic donors are not pleased by their motive.

Collusion breeds corruption. Democracy becomes strong and clean when there is powerful opposition to question the government, to prevent it from going overboard, and to compete at the time of election. A national government is diametrically the opposite of the democratic principle of check and balance. If the idea comes to fruition, there will be no one in the opposition worth the name to counter the government in the Constituent Assembly and inform the public.

Finally, donors would not  support willingly a country that cannot repair its central secretariat but commits to funding eight states and their paraphernalia and chooses to institute an unaccountable national government. The immediate neighbors and several European countries have made it abundantly clear that they support a few economically viable states in federal Nepal. The Big Four have agreed on eight provinces, which NC leader Ram Chandra Paudel has ridiculed as unsustainable. I agree.

Both donors and we Nepalis know that the administrative costs of donor-driven project are high. In some cases, such costs eat up to 65 percent of foreign assistance. Yet they are certain that the rest is more or less properly utilized. However, neither foreigners nor the Nepalis trust that the government would invest more than 35 percent of such resources in the intended target groups or tasks. Hence, donors at home and abroad are reluctant to trust the government.

Whether the conference achieves its goals would depend on the government’s ability to build the bridge of trust with donors that it would do what it has pledged. Therefore, the government must address the issues raised here before donors can be confident that their money is going to be used properly. Otherwise, the donors would want to use their resources themselves to help the Nepali people.