EDITORIAL: Bad precedent

The pork barrel spending will neither strengthen democracy nor will ensure fiscal discipline

When Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada presented budget estimates for the fiscal year 2018-19 on May 29, he tried to curtail to some extent the pork barrel spending in the name of the constituency infrastructure development programme. But he relented to the pressures created by his own lawmakers. He was compelled to allocate Rs 40 million to each of the 165 constituencies, where directly elected lawmakers are required to recommend programmes on specified areas – agriculture, roads, river control and tourism development. However, the federal lawmakers were unhappy with the “meagre” allocation of budget attached with riders. A similar resentment was also aired by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, co-chairman of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), at the party’s standing committee meeting last Friday. Dahal said “technocrat-turned-finance-minister” failed to feel the pulse of the people and lawmakers while formulating the fiscal budget. He made this comment referring to the “low amount” of the budget earmarked to the constituency infrastructure development programme to be handled by the lawmakers.

Such a comment from a high-profile leader like Dahal speaks volume about the mindset of the lawmakers, who are least bothered about the fiscal discipline that the finance minister is aiming to maintain. A similar situation – pork barrel spending – has also arisen in the provincial assemblies. Four of the seven provinces have allocated budget for infrastructure development programmes based on the recommendations made by the provincial assembly members. The programmes to be selected by assembly members in four provinces will cost Rs 3.22 billion. The total combined amount to be spent by the federal lawmakers and provincial assembly members is sure to cross over Rs 10 billion. Though the pork barrel budget is less than one per cent of the federal budget, it is sure to create financial indiscipline. It is highly likely that the budget earmarked under the Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme (LIDPP) will be spent on the lawmakers’ pet projects or in vote-bank areas.

The provincial budget documents show Province 1 has allocated Rs 1.12 billion; Province 2 Rs 587 million; Province 5 Rs 870 million; and Province 7 has allocated Rs 640 million for the LIDPP. Province 2 has also allocated up to Rs 2.5 million even for an assembly member elected under proportional representation. Province 3, 4 and Karnali have not allocated budget under LIDPP as most of their programmes have been covered by the federal budget. The pork barrel spending, according to economists, will neither strengthen democracy nor will ensure fiscal discipline. It will set a bad precedent. It also cannot be ruled out that local level elected officials will not follow suit. Past experiences suggest that such programmes brought no positive impact at the grass-roots level. The Ministry of Finance has talked about creating an oversight mechanism to monitor the pork barrel budget. But such mechanism to be made at the bureaucratic level will be confined to a paper given the lawmakers’ political clout. It is also likely that most of the programmes to be selected by the lawmakers and assembly members will get overlapped with each other as this type of budget will be spent on the same constituency. Its impact must be reviewed.

Good move

Road digging is one of the events that picks up the pace when the fiscal year draws to a close. This has been going on for years, for there is a general tendency among authorities to “spend” the allocated budget before the end of the fiscal year. Coincidently, as fiscal year nears its end in Nepal, monsoon sets in. Apart from that, some development works have continued this fiscal, and one of the projects is laying of pipes for the Melamchi Drinking Water Project. Combine road diggings here and there and the monsoon rains and you get the muddy Capital city.

A ban imposed by the Department of Roads (DoR) on digging of roads during monsoon hence is a good move. The DoR has issued a notice, asking all concerned authorities not to dig up roads for laying drinking water pipes or telephone or electricity wires or water sewage pipes. The DoR has also asked concerned agencies to coordinate with it before digging up works for laying pipes or wires. The DoR ban on road digging for the next three months must be implemented effectively so as to allow smooth traffic and reduce chances of road accidents.