January 23, 2023 Sujeev Shakya

Corruption as usual

The Yeti Airlines crash has again brought Nepal into the global limelight for the wrong reasons.

The first challenge you encounter upon arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) is taking the escalator down one level. When I first tweeted about the inconveniently small elevator, the media was going gaga about the new facility, and I took down the post after being warned by a friend. Now with multiple videos about the dud escalator going viral, it is evident there is something wrong here. The design specifications were created to ensure that a particular party won the contract. Every political leader has something to do in ensuring that TIA was designed the way it is, as they can’t go against the businesses that fund them. In Nepal, tenders are never structured to attract reputed international companies as they refuse to pay political parties or their leaders. Further, it appears that institutions like the Asian Development Bank, which support TIA upgradation plans, either have no advisory say or are not bothered.

The recent Yeti Airlines crash has again brought Nepal into the global limelight for the wrong reasons. The country is on the European Union blacklist, and for the past 10 years, Nepali airlines have not been able to fly to Europe. Further, when VIP visits occur, getting safety clearance is very challenging. A study abroad programme we planned with Babson College of Wellesley in Massachusetts, United States has been cancelled citing air safety. Many other such cancellations of visits have taken place. Corruption has led to air disasters, and despite international agencies like Accountability Lab bringing these issues to global policy forums, Nepal has little interest.

Similarly, rampant incidents of projects being stalled and contractors getting away with delays are visible in Kathmandu, like the inoperational bridge at Kalimati which has lain forgotten for years or the Parliament building that is forever under construction. Instead, people in these businesses are cajoled by political parties and provided plum positions, including ministerial berths. 

Corporate responsibility

Corruption has proliferated in Nepal also because many businesses have evolved based on the cardinal rule that if others can do it, why can’t we? Ethical practices and integrity are not integrated into business strategies and policies; rather, they are seen as something that can be ignored. Due to prodding by some development programmes, there is an emphasis on corporate social responsibility (CSR) without the necessity of discussing corporate responsibility. Little due diligence has been done when partnering with corporations; therefore, companies have got away with bad products or services, but they still get international programmes to work with them. Bad governance breeds corruption, and the nexus of business and politicians has made Nepal a fertile ground. 

In Unleashing Nepal, I have written about the “two laddoo” syndrome: In a culture where we compete to bribe the gods, we do not find bribing mortals an issue. (Laddoo is a sweet ball generally offered to the gods, especially the elephant-headed god Ganesha.) Culturally, it is acceptable to be corrupt and embrace bad governance. If we look at the organisations where people are supposed to volunteer, we see a high level of corruption. People do not complain about land grabs around temples and guthis (social organisations). You grow up thinking it is okay to make money through unfair means or taking advantage of your position. So when you look for bridegrooms for your daughter, you do not mind that the potential guy has made money through corruption and built the house you are yearning for your daughter to live in. Corrupt people are not ostracised by society; therefore, it proliferates. 

I have been writing about this over the last two decades, and the emphasis is to stop this virus through individual changes that will push society to change, and thereby, the country to change. The biggest change that we see when it comes to corruption is that it seems the international community has accepted this side of Nepali culture to a large extent. Therefore, unlike during the heyday of the human rights business, we do not see statements from the international community regarding tainted ministers being appointed or corruption scandals being exposed. Discussions on transitional justice have become more cocktail-time chat. They now tend to say it is Nepal’s internal affair. 

International endorsement

This is seen as an international endorsement of the corrupt. When former finance minister Janardan Sharma fired Nepal Rastra Bank governor Maha Prasad Adhikari to protect people engaged in money laundering, or when investigations were launched into alleged tampering of the government budget, nobody waited for the court verdict or the investigation report. It is business as usual. This is perhaps the scariest transformation. 

The recent general elections were seen as a referendum against corrupt old Nepali political leaders. The Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) bagged a lot of votes because of their pledge to fight corruption; but as they say, political compulsion is to be in the same government with peers that have excelled in corruption. The RSP as a political party has a lot to prove—to walk the talk as they navigate the thin line of “we are different” or “we are the same”. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party has shown its true colours by appointing tainted ministers, and we should never forget that the rule of the Shahs and Ranas was riddled with corruption. The only difference is that corruption has been democratised and percolated to the lowest level of governance structures. Let us see who will bring some changes to stem this rot.

Read the full article on The Kathmandu Post: https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2023/01/23/corruption-as-usual

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