We Nepalis go through many religious rituals for life after death. From childhood, I have been observing how quickly we can ‘bribe’ god’s ‘middlemen’ to get an easier passage to heaven. And instead of gifting a whole cow, we have learnt to negotiate a better deal to shortcut the process.
At temples, we bribe gods. I look at competing groups jostle at the local temple, making vows to deposit 5 percent of the profits to the temple in case they win a tender bid. We suffer from the ‘two laddoos syndrome’ that I have written ad nauseam about. People who can just bribe gods with two laddoos will probably not bat an eyelid before thinking of bribing a human. Our culture and religion are based on middlemen who interpret the scriptures for you, tell you your fate and what you can do to change it or prevent some bad things from happening. The middlemen peddle rituals, offerings, pilgrimages and others, while we make them a way of life. So if there is a shortcut, let us take it! The payment for a shortcut is part of our culture, which in the contemporary world is called “corruption”. How will we deal with such a complicated issue?
The results of the Nepali Congress party elections clearly showed that despite having gone to jail for corruption, some leaders are still revered. In day-to-day life, people in the villages are more than happy to marry off their daughters to a man who has a big house and probably a motorcycle, if not a car, although they know that the earnings of that person came from corrupt practices. Thought leader, Dr Surendra Labh of Janakpur, never tires of sharing how after the recent ‘blockade economy’, people from the villages in the Tarai are looking for families of bilakia—local reference to people who made it big in the black marketeering of oil during the blockade—to marry off their daughters.
Similarly, corrupt practices plague our bureaucracy. There is a Nepali saying that goes, “Kar ma base ghar banincha, bhansar ma base sansar”, which means that if you are in the Tax office, you will (earn enough to) make a house and if you are in the Customs Department, you will make the world. How do we work in a society in which corruption is an acceptable norm? The ones who do not follow the norm leave their near and dear ones gazing in amusement. When I was involved in the $100 million Upper Bhote Koshi Power Project, many near and dear ones were upset that I was not recruiting my family folks and not making big bucks by tweaking finances. I was even suggested to ignore the cents in payments and transfer them to my personal account. When I look around, I am amazed by people who have amassed assets much more than their income and who still get raving respect from society.
In 2006, just after the decade-long conflict ended, many of my academic friends in the US predicted how Nepal will be embroiled in crony capitalism and how corruption will go through the roof. As a naïve optimist, I disregarded that. However, after 10 years, as I do more work on the discourse on ‘Fragile to Frontier (F2F)’ countries—nations that turned into investment destinations after conflict—it becomes clearer that corruption is a widespread issue that is not only limited to Nepal. Ruchir Sharma, in his new book The Rise and Fall of Nations, has devoted quite a few pages to this analysis.
Post-conflict countries try to push their economies forward. Some like Rwanda and Cambodia do it by opening themselves for international investors and global firms, thereby making a sustainable march towards economic development. Some like Nepal choose to create platforms of crony capitalism as seen by the proliferation of syndicates and cartels along with financial co-operatives that are barely regulated. A narrative high on nationalistic rhetoric gains strength and leaders use it to promote businesses of their own cronies.
Business associations plunge in to promote protectionism and toe the party lines to create a strong political-business nexus that helps politicians get rich and business people even richer. The country then becomes a great land of opportunity where erstwhile school teachers can become rich politicians in a few decades.
Walking The Talk
Neither law nor super-government agencies that can almost never be regulated will eradicate corruption from the country. The transformation will have to come from small changes that we bring within ourselves. It will begin with small actions like not submitting a bill of six plates of chilli chicken when you were drinking beer, or by coming back to office on time and not delaying the trip by a day to claim an extra day’s travel allowance, or by ensuring transparency on how you award a contract. Small steps are the only way to start. When it comes to corruption, we are only accountable to ourselves. So we should all start questioning the shortcuts we are taking in life, religion and particularly culture. If we can cultivate this self-awareness, a lot can change. We can then take pride in sharing it with others. And it will be easier to walk the talk.