The price of basic commodities is out of control. The capital market is in disarray, and the economy remains disproportionately import-oriented. The resultant frustration among the people is palpable. People have lost their confidence in the rule of law, and the faith in the politicians has ebbed to dismal depths. There is a total breakdown of governance right from the grassroots level. The paradox of our democracy is that our politicians have learned to ignore public opinion and their grievances on corruption, service delivery, public goods and entitlements.
Nepal is one of the most corrupt countries not because it doesn´t have the regulatory mechanism to penalise corruption, but because it has no political will to tackle it. Combating corruption means ensuring institutional integrity, strong democratic institutions, robust regulatory supervision and fewer checkpoints. The strength of a country is determined by the credibility of its institutions. Successive governments and political parties have failed miserably to strengthen the regulatory bodies, often deliberately weakening their authority by packing them with pliable bureaucrats. These institutions are unfortunately under the attack of the predatory political executives.
The other reason corruption has spread throughout the system is a fast weakening accountability of the bureaucrats and politicians. That´s happening largely because Nepal´s judiciary is grossly inefficient as citizens have little faith in its capacity to deliver justice. A high-level task force report reveals that there are around 420 corruption-related backlog cases at the apex court.
Why has corruption become such an important issue now? One reason is the sheer number of graft cases that have surfaced recently. From the multi-million dollar Sudan scam to defaulting on the VAT bills worth billions of rupees, the politics-bureaucracy-business nexus has had a corrosive effect on governance. Bureaucrats blame politicians. Politicians castigate the bureaucracy. Citizens rebuke both politicians and bureaucrats. It´s a kind of beggar-thy-neighbour attitude, enabling the entire system to be left without accountability.
China, for example, has imprisoned tens of thousands of officials and even executed some for corruption. Yet corruption has not declined in China. This makes one dimension of the problem clear: Unless we initiate reforms and address corruption at its roots, success will continue to elude us.
One of the fundamental tenets of democratic governance is ‘active citizenship’ - a form of citizenship with rights, entitlements and obligations. Democratic governance is built on engaged citizenry that demands transparency and accountability from government institutions which proactively reciprocates with timely response to popular demands and grievances. Creation of a hotline unit at the Prime Minister´s Office - called the Hello Sarkar initiative - was an effort at rebuilding a new social compact and trust between the state and citizens.
Such initiatives, however, are not unique to Nepal. Jacob Zuma, upon being sworn in as President of South Africa in 2009, immediately set up a call centre at his office to handle public inquiries, complaints and grievances on service delivery as part of the efforts to move towards a "more interactive government". Callers have the option of calling for help in different languages, and calls are recorded and logged for quality, tracking and monitoring. A call log helps the presidency monitor turnaround times and gather information, for example, on which government department receives the most complaints. In just the second year of its operation, the call centre had achieved a 75 per cent case resolution rate.
Similarly, just across the southern border, the State Government of Bihar set up a Facilitation Centre called "JAANKARI" to make the benefits of the Right to Information (RTI) Act easily accessible to citizens. It is a unique Bihar government initiative to increase transparency in government processes. The system, designed in an "information at your doorstep" format, has been widely appreciated across India and has helped remove the hassle of physical movement for the common people. The government bears the cost of the facilitation centre, including the costs of transmitting application and substantial costs on high-quality call service.
Good laws, no implementation
Establishing such call centers is easy, but ensuring their sustainability is an uphill task. We have a political culture of discontinuing the initiatives of previous governments, no matter how effective they are. More importantly, the political parties and the government should be mindful that Nepal has enacted landmark and powerful legislation like the RTI and Good Governance (Management & Operation) (GG) Act. The good governance law has clearly provisioned for compensation of Rs. 5,000 to a service user if delay in service delivery causes him/her any damage.
In order to handle complaints from service users, every public agency needs to designate a nodal officer who submits to the chief of the respective agency the complaints received during the past 24 hours. The law also provisions that every public body conducts quarterly public hearings to make its functions transparent. Also, to enhance monitoring of service delivery, the GG Act has envisioned monitoring and evaluation committees at the central, regional and district levels. But none of these provisions have ever been materialised.
The RTI Act, on the other hand, makes strict provision for maximum openness and transparency in government affairs, down to the village level. The RTI law has ensured a legal guarantee for every citizen to question government activities, solicit its files, documents and records of past and current affairs. Public supervision, inspection, access and oversight on government activities enhance transparency and accountability thus helping prevent corruption and fraud.
The strength of the RTI law lies in its legal guarantee of access to information at all levels of government and protection of the whistle-blowers from possible reprisals. Yet its poor implementation backed by bureaucratic and political unwillingness has marred political accountability and transparency in all spheres of service delivery. Proper implementation of these laws can reduce the burden on a call centre like Hello Sarkar and institutionalise accountability and transparency.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)