INTERVIEW | CORRUPTION IN NEPAL | PUBLIC SECTOR CORRUPTION | PETTY & STRUCTURAL CORRUPTION | GOVERNA
Dr. Sucheta Pyakuryal left the country to pursue her Master’s in International Politics in the United States in 2002. After finishing the degree, she went on to complete her Ph.D. in Public Affairs before working as a visiting professor in her department at the University of North Florida.
When she decided to move back to her home country, she was offered to head the Centre of Governance at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), a not-for-profit think-tank, that focuses on research and policy advocacy. She eagerly grabbed the opportunity.
Today, in addition to heading the centre, she has also been teaching Ph.D. and Master level students courses on political science, public policy, and public administration for the past three years at Kathmandu University and Tribhuvan University.
“I wear two hats. I wear an administrative hat and an academic hat. And I juggle my role,” she told the_farsight.
Sakshi Agrawal and Vivek Baranwal on May 30 interviewed Dr. Pyakuryal on the issue of public sector corruption in Nepal. She highlights that the public sector is not much data-friendly as the data relating to public institutions are abysmally managed — poor database indexing — thus difficult to locate. Obtaining data involves a hassling process — the institutions might be too reluctant to share the data.
The interview has been condensed for clarity.
What do you think is corruption? What are the different forms of corruption?
I would factionalise it into two different types: the petty kind and the large structural one. You have corruption in street-level bureaucracy and the grand larceny kind of corruption scandal like the one that emerged recently fake Bhutanese refugee scandal.
Petty corruption has become the norm. The other one is too structural. It’s embedded in the structural-functionalism of our country, becoming part and parcel of the system. And we’re plagued by both.
The common individual actually feels the pinch of the petty type — you go to any public bureau (office), and you face this small corruption. On the other hand, the entire structure has been held captive by the grand systemic corruption. The majority of the corruption occurs in procurement and construction.
Which type of corruption dominates the country?
We don’t have hardcore data to spell out what kind of corruption dominates the country but both affect us equally, the systemic as well as petty. As far as the country’s development is concerned, what is really dragging us down and back is the structural — the big, systemic structural corruption that steals the public money away from development projects, infrastructure development, livelihood projects, and more.
Over the years we have seen scandals like Lalita Niwas, Omni, 33 kg gold, widebody, and the most recent – fake Bhutanese refugee. What is the modus operandi behind and what induces such scandals?
I believe that there are a couple of variables responsible for this. First, the state of our state.
I really don’t know if this is deliberate or if we fell for the trap, but we became extremely market-oriented in the 1990s when we were building our nation-state. Public and private discourses were dominated by market economy such that they were all about expanding the market and gaining and retaining the surplus. In the process, the state got sidelined. We could not work on the structuring of an administrative state — public administration and public sector.
Now what we have is a state, which is structurally very poorly organised, resulting in a poor accountability system and not enough [regulatory] bureaus. The existing bureaus are poorly funded and trained. Our public sector is full of red tape, cumbersome, lethargic, inefficient, and ineffective. All the adjectives that we use for our public sector are hardly positive.
In the end, when we are talking about corruption, the one sector that we need to fall back on is the public sector, but it is also the one that pays the least [to its employees]. And if the public sector is dwindling, how can we expect it to do the work?
All in all, I think our public sector needs urgent revamping. It’s being undermined, overshadowed, and ignored for long enough.
How do big fishes flee from these big scandals?
Statecraft is an amalgam of many things, and we have something called political culture. Over the years, we have cultivated the culture of impunity, which started from the panchayat era and solidified during the Maoist revolution when we failed to punish the guilty on both state and rebel sides, and now it’s become part and parcel of our political culture.
The fact that we have a poor public administration, a fragmented and very poorly structured public sector. The fact that we are politically apathetic because we are so market centric that we are less state-centric citizens. We lack interest in governance because we have been inundated with the market.
As market enthusiasts, we know how to seek rent, commodify and sell ourselves. But we have not been trained to act as a citizen. We are less bothered about our rights and obligations towards the state. There’s lack of sense of community. I think that’s what propels the culture of impunity. The amalgamation of all this makes the stage ripe for corruption, and the corrupt to flee and avert punishment.
How has the modus operandi of corruption been changing with the implementation of federalism?
Federalism is the dispersion of power. We have adopted fiscal federalism. Along with power, we have also dispersed duties, governance, and finances that were centralised. Now we have three layers: the provincial, the local, and the federal. Governments are dispersing too. If they are responsible for a certain thing, they will be held accountable for that. For instance, the local government is answerable to the local people. The provincial level is also answerable to the local governments. These layers of government also add a layer of accountability, duties, and roles and responsibilities.
Ten years ago, we could just point the finger and say that that’s where the corruption takes place, given the unitary form of governance — public offices were directly answerable to their Kathmandu-based headquarters, and we have nothing to do with it.
But now, with fiscal federalism, the money is travelling to provinces and local levels. It’s like a catch-22 situation, given the federal form of governance that involves multiple state agencies and stakeholders, where if the whole system is corrupt, the corruption can trickle down to provinces and local levels too. That’s one aspect of it.
The other aspect is because the roles and responsibilities have dispersed to the provinces and the local levels, so have the public expectations and accountability. For instance, property taxes are collected at the local level. Thus, it will be easier for people to question “Where is our money? The one that we gave you?”
We also have the RTI — right to information. According to that particular act, everything has to be there in black and white, showing us how the state spends the taxpayer’s money. So it is interesting that there is less chance of people escaping now because of the dissemination of power, money, and responsibility, on the one hand.
On the other hand, we have an apathetic citizenry that is a threat to this system. If the citizenry is not interested in politics or governance and holding anybody accountable, corruption can magnify and spread.
There is a common perception that all leaders are “thieves”. Local governments are the closest state that people most interact with. What are the forms of corruption prevalent at local levels? What can be done to check them?
The majority of the corruption cases occur in Malpot Karyalaya (land revenue offices) and ward offices where you go to pay taxes.
Sometimes a person might not pay taxes for two years or three years and the amount is accrued. The personnel at tax offices will offer to reduce the amount in exchange for a bribe. Since everything is online now, it’s a little difficult to tweak things. But even then, someone who is completely tech-savvy, creative, and innovative, has mal intentions and is used to malfeasance, can ask for bribes in exchange for reducing the tax amount. In Malpot Karyalaya, the same thing happens.
The Malpot Karyalaya facilitates with 'dor' system when clients (buyers or sellers) are physically unable to or don’t want to attend at the office. Dor is a team of officials who bring the bureau (office) into your house, to your doorstep. You have to pay a basic fee to avail of that service. But the trend is that the officials ask for an additional (unofficial) fee which can exceed Rs. 15,000. Else, they refuse to come. We have not been able to such practices.
Sometimes ignorance can also lead to malfeasance and corruption. People often don’t know the boundary and gifts become bribes. Training the bureaucrats, especially the street-level bureaucrats on the do’s and don’ts, would be helpful.
A few years back, Pakistan had a system where people who encountered corruption — asked for bribes — could text a certain number. That apparently checked corruption practices. Nepal could do something similar. We, of course, have Hello Sarkar, which was effective to a certain extent. But it became dysfunctional very soon.
Provincial governments completed their first tenure without having their own administration and police. Provincial leaders and experts say that such governments have no authority and cannot function. The other side of the argument terms it as an excuse and puts the onus of functioning on the willpower of such governments. What do you think is true? What could be the role of provincial governments in combating corruption?
Well, the provincial government and the district administration office are two different things. People are so used to going to district offices which are full of administrative buzz compared to provincial offices where people are quite absent and there are not many positions.
For those positions that have been filled, you don’t see people that often so you are quite tempted to ask whether the provincial offices are really effective or not, but in my opinion, we have not done enough to train those provincial officials.
I don’t think there has been exercise on that particular level as to how to serve the people, also how to reach out to the stakeholders and quell the angst of the socio-economic and cultural level provincial stakeholders. And I think that is the role of the federal government — to jump-start everything.
Also, just creating a provincial government and expecting them to do things on their own is a bit unfair. Provincial government officials have expressed that the federal level is unwilling to delegate power. There is a lot of push and pull involved as far as the federal level is concerned.
So I am not sure if we are not used to the essence of federalism or if it is just the high-handedness of the federal level. However, we still have to wait and watch to build a synopsis and at least a decade-long data is needed.
As you said earlier that the public sector is poorly funded, do you think government jobs are not being paid well leaving the jobholders struggling to meet their needs? Do you think the state is somewhat responsible for corruption? If not state, then who is?
See, I don’t know whom to blame. I guess the policymakers who started to reconstruct the state in the 90s or even earlier share the blame. The public sector is under-furnished and underpaid making it less attractive to the younger population. Because the private and the non-profit sector are better rewarding jobs, the trend is shifting towards joining these sectors, especially BFIs (banks and financial institutions) and INGOs.
In addition, we cannot afford to other the state because the state is us, the government is us. There’s no them vs us. We are part and parcel of the state. We elect the people who run the state. Administrative roles are funded by taxes we pay. Something is dysfunctional as far as we are concerned as a society, a state, and a community.
As I said earlier, the market has inundated the state. Now and then, we learn about incidents of bargaining and rent-seeking for signing papers that have broadly vested interests. I hope I don’t sound too pro-state and anti-market, it’s just that there is a misbalance between the state and the market.
Do you think there are any international anti-corruption practices that are actually relevant to our socio-economic or political condition?
See, that’s what we talk about all the time.
Transparency International has been there for a long period of time now. It carries out the CPI (corruption perception index). So many workshops have been conducted on what corruption is and how to mitigate corruption. But I hardly can say that there are any policies that are appropriate or work in the context of Nepal.
We have seen landgrab scandals such as Baluwatar Jagga Prakaran, Bansbari Chhala Jutta Kharkhana Jagga Prakaran, and Bal Mandir Jagga Prakaran, that came and just fizzled out. The then-sitting finance minister Dr. Bishnu Poudel was involved in the Baluwatar Prakaran. And the reason, we were told, upon why he was reinstated to the position was because he “returned” the land. This approach propels a precedent — you do corruption, renounce the benefit you yield, or undo the move and you are clean.
There should be a gap between our understanding of corruption and the Western understanding with the practices they adopt not being effective in Nepal. We at the Centre of Governance, IIDS are trying to find out about the gap.
At present, we are not doing much bad as far as indices — corruption perception index, governance, freedom house index measuring democracy, and bureaucracy corruption — are concerned. We are somewhere in the middle.
As you mentioned, governance is going digital. Do you think digitisation is also somewhat enabling corruption?
Digitisation is something we encounter every day. Now we have what is called AI (artificial intelligence) in academics, especially ChatGPT. When I give my students assignments and they use GPT, I have come across no such software that has helped me decode the GPT-generated assignment.
Technology has become a boon but a bane at the same time in this generation. As far as corruption is concerned, there have been numerous international issues intertwined with technology. We do see malware that hacks the system and causes damage, such as loss of data.
Can anti-corruption become a norm here?
There is naming and shaming of people who do bad. Several years ago, I was a jury for Accountability Lab, an institution working in the area of governance. They had started lauding public officials who were ethical, pro-people, and doing well. The trend is yet to accelerate.
As we know, there is so much corruption and money involved which hides numerous deeds under the rugs. Naming and shaming are thus falling short. I would not say it’s not working completely but it has not picked up as much.
Lastly, how connected or not is public sector corruption with private sector corruption?
It’s definitely connected. We can clearly see the cases of larceny on a large scale prevalent in this country, so yes the public sector corruption is interconnected with the private sector. For instance, land grab scandals such as Bansbari Chhala Jutta Karkhana by CG; Bal Mandir by multiple stakeholders, including industrialists, agriculturists, and educationalists among others.
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