Corruption in local bodies Empower direct users

While billions have been spent on local development, rural areas are still teeming with the poor.

For the first time, Local Development Minister, Ram Chandra Jha, has candidly admitted that “many local level development projects had remained only on paper” and “funds meant for the projects (were) misappropriated” (“Jha roadmap for local bodies” THT, Oct 20). However, Minister Jha was not being honest when he said that the corrupt would be prosecuted under the law. He also blamed the problem on the absence of elected local bodies as if the elected officials were the paragon of integrity when they were there. As a long time politician, Minister Jha ought to know that his solutions would neither be implemented nor work because the malaise is chronic and nationwide.

Such misleading utterances by a minister would simply hurt the interest of the people whom he purports to represent. While billions and billions of rupees have been spent in the name of local development during the last half century, the rural areas today continue to be home to Nepal’s suffering multitude.

Although our poverty ratio has come down from 42 per cent in 1995/96 to 31 per cent in 2003/04, rural poverty still remains 34 per cent compared to 9 per cent in the urban areas. It should also be pointed out that despite the reduction in poverty ratio during the eight-year period, the absolute number of poor has been big and progressively increasing over the years.

For instance, the poverty ratio in 1984/85 was around 42 per cent too which meant that in the total population of 15 million (1981) at the time, the poor numbered only about 6.3 million.

But today, with 23 million population (2001), the number of poor is now over 7 million with most of them living in rural areas. With malnutrition, poor education and unemployment remaining rampant in the villages, the lives of the rural poor today continue to resemble more or less the same conditions that Thomas Hobbes had famously described in 1651 to depict the quality of life of early humans — “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”,

This is the issue that should have struck the Local Development Minister Jha as well as other high officials in the ministry. While the minister himself comes from the midst of this morass of deprivation and bad governance, many of his senior officials have risen to their present positions after having spent several years as local development officers in the districts. Thus, they have been witness to the gross misuse of development resources from very close quarters.

It should also be noted that it was the unchecked corruption by the then district and village panchas that had led to the innovation of the institution of user groups in the Decentralisation Act of 1982. But this being a “Panchayat product” the mindless multiparty advocates of the 90s wrecked it even as most of them went on to profit from corruption at various levels.

Essentially, the user groups are the organisations of direct stakeholders exclusively empowered to manage their own development activities in the communities. This concept was later incorporated in the forestry legislation in 1988 as forest user groups (FUG) that went on to achieve the dramatic restoration of Nepal’s dwindling forest wealth. The strength of such user groups lies in the fact that all the users participate in the decision-making of the groups thus rendering their management transparent and their leaders accountable for their activities. But this condition is largely absent in the functioning of the Village Development Committees (VDCs) which were generally dominated by a handful of local traditional elites.

The framing of the Local Self-Governance Act (LSGA) between 1996 and 1999 had provided an opportunity to restore user control of local development. But the people who drafted the Local Self Governance Act were political loyalists of the then prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and minister for local development, Kamal Thapa, and had no clue about the processes of local development.

And the liberal flow of money by DANIDA and later by United Nations Development Programme

(UNDP) (to mainly outbid the former) to the exercise made such appointments lucrative too. Thus, due to such myopic considerations, the document failed to include the all-important provision regarding the formation and functioning of user groups, but it set the stage, thanks to the callous indiscretions of the politicians and donors for the continued misuse of billions of rupees meant for local development.

Given such a dire situation, Local Development Minister Jha and his professional associates must not hide behind the mere reiteration of the hackneyed solutions. In order to prevent the misuse of resources in the local bodies, the Local Self Governance Act itself must be revamped so that the user groups are systematically formed like the forest user groups and exclusively empowered to manage their own development.

Shrestha is a former additional secretary