Pure Myth: Corruption Free Nepal

On November 10, 2014:

The recent scathing criticism against plausibly potent leadership of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) for exhibiting inordinate interference in the government state of affairs has engendered a vibrant debate on better ways to implement Rule of Law and control corruption. While anti-graft body has publicly maintained that it has no inherent interest in trampling on the state jurisdiction, it appears to cling to a far-fetched fantasy that eliminating corruption is a simple matter of issuing directives and filing cases against the suspected government officials. This has brought about the need to delve into the existing mechanism of ongoing corruption policing efforts and the subsequent implication of unintended adverse consequences.

CIAA, as an organization, has witnessed massive growth in the last twenty years, including a striking three-fold increase in the size of the employees and a stupendous rise of 1400% in the annual budget expenditures, from about 9 million to 135 million rupees. Moreover, number of potential corruption-related complaints it receives annually has quintupled, with over 22,000 letters collected last year itself. Further, a rather pro-active approach involving several corruption-related allegations that started during July and August of 2013 has contributed immensely to its overall decentralization, leading to an expansion of divisional offices across the nation.

On one side, this highlights the enormity of responsibility CIAA carries, specifically in terms of the need to perform a well laid-out comprehensive investigation on cases before formally making charges in the court. On the other side, this also gives rise to substantial lee-way for the organization to gain populist support through ostentatiously publicized arrests in the name of corruption elimination. It is, therefore, imperative that the general public understands the need to evaluate current political outlook in the light of recent controversial steps undertaken by CIAA, including a series of continual arrests conducted in a seemingly haphazard manner.

Although the CIAA institutional strategy report, developed in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program, claims that a large surge in the number of complaints received suggests its soaring public approval, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, most of us are blithely unaware of its conspicuously poor success ratio in the final verdict regarding majority of the corruption-related allegations. One of the recent CIAA publications suggests that it has lost more than 60% of the corruption cases in the court in the last ten years. Given that it has already filed more than 40 cases pertaining to institutional corruption in the Special Court barely over six months this year, the core validity of the allegations made by CIAA remains justifiably questionable.

Undoubtedly, Nepal has improved its ranking in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), one of the global indicators of measuring corruption. To exemplify, Nepal gained four more points this past year than in 2011, possibly emanating from wide media coverage of CIAA initiatives. However, such indicators capture perceptions of corruption that come to light through scandals, investigations or prosecutions.

Worse, one of the impending efforts aimed at evaluating the CIAA performance metric as per the five-year long institutional strategy report appears to focus more on ways of cultivating it's dynamic image instead of mitigating corruption in true sense. These efforts include potential mechanism to increase the number of lawsuits, the number of individuals accused and the bail amount demanded in the charge sheet. Under these circumstances, CIAA's recent interventions that have overlooked complaints of corruption worth billions and focused on issues involving sums of meager 1,500 rupees, at best, will only improve the CPI rankings. At worse, such initiatives reduce governance to a grotesque farce, throwing dust in the eyes of the Nepali public.

What's more unfortunate is the lack of engaging discussion on how recent CIAA policing efforts have inevitably led to a severe "domino effect," damaging other areas of the economy and tarnishing social prestige of some of the suspected officials. The well-publicized transformer scam in August of 2013 involving Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) and the Chinese company, Hubei Sun Light Electric Co. Ltd is a case in point. Against the globally functional agreement between NEA and Hubei, CIAA reportedly broached the pillars of contractual international law and regulation. While it made serious corruption allegations against the top officials, it also disrupted the previously initiated transformer replacement process.

Consequently, this gave rise to apparent administrative languor at NEA and several other government offices, with subordinate staffs showing outright reluctance to sign sheets of paper. Further, recent estimates from the Finance Committee of the Legislature-Parliament suggest that one out of every three government employees and out one of every ten citizens have lodged a complaint against CIAA. Taken together, these secondary facts bolster the need to independently evaluate the rigor of the investigative procedures led by CIAA.

The underlying challenge ahead entails how anti-graft body representatives account for unintended adverse consequences. This includes being more receptive towards the perverse social implications of a sensationalized public allegation. There's always a strong likelihood that an in-depth investigation of the case in the court proves some of the accused completely innocent. While it takes years of hard work and sincere commitment to nurture reputation in a community, it's blatantly unjust that a mere public allegation impairs one's social status.

Certainly, no meaningful metric based on hard empirical data exists in Nepal to assess absolute levels of corruption. However, it doesn't mean that executing tasks rather perfunctorily in the form of massive arrests and inter-departmental orders is the only path towards eliminating corruption. Given that ongoing activities appear to have instilled sheer fear and lack of motivation among the government employees, it is high time that newfangled ideas be discussed towards addressing such problems.