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.

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