Corruption, Corruption Everywhere!

 Uttam Maharjan

 

In recent times, corruption has literally rocked Nepal. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for the country remaining undeveloped despite injection of a huge sum of money into development projects from both internal and external sources is the prevalence of widespread corruption. Corruption has spread its tentacles so much so that every level from the highest to the lowest has been invaded. The scam involving office-bearers of the now defunct Tax Settlement Commission (TSC) has made news headlines since Chudamani Sharma, Member Secretary of the Commission, was nabbed on June 2, 2017.

The findings of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) have shown that out of taxes amounting to Rs. 30 billion to be settled, Rs. 20 billion worth of taxes were found to be have been waived by the TSC by making a compromise with businessmen. Even the VAT and taxes already paid were found to have been waived. Although Sharma has been now in judicial custody, the Chairman and Member of the TSC are still on the trot.

Scams

Earlier, the Sudan scandal had rocked the country. Some of the culprits implicated in the scandal have been sent to jail. But the TSC scam has proved to be far more serious than the Sudan scandal. As investigation into the TSC scam is going on, other scams emerged. One is related to the Sajha Publications, while the other concerns the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC). In the former, embezzlement has been indulged in by publishing textbooks in an unauthorised manner, while in the latter tens of millions of rupees were misappropriated by buying plots of land in various parts of the country such as Chitwan, Bhairahawa, Jhapa and Siraha at highly inflated prices. Out of the deal of 1.5 billion rupees, half of the amount has been embezzled.

The plots of land were procured by the NOC in the name of constructing fuel storage facilities in view of inadequate storage facilities, which often leads to fuel shortage whenever import of fuel is disrupted even for two or three days for some reasons. The NOC is planning to construct storage facilities in various places of the country so that fuel can last up to 90 days. Further, it has been planned to install storage facilities in all the seven provinces. A budget of six billion rupees has been earmarked for the purchase of land. The idea of expanding the storage capacity of the NOC and diversifying the storage facilities is a welcome thing but misappropriating government funds is a heinous crime.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has found irregularities in the land purchase deal. The CIAA has now been entrusted with investigating the matter. Parliamentarians have also vigorously protested against the irregularities. There seems to be a grand design orchestrated by the high-ranking officials of the NOC, including its Managing Director Gopal Bahadur Khadka, to misuse government funds. While purchasing the land, the NOC should have abided by the Land Acquisition Act, 2034. But the NOC completely bypassed the act, reasoning that going by the Act would lengthen the process. Even the government rates were found to have been inflated by the officials of the concerned local bodies. Besides, instead of purchasing public land the NOC went for private land.

The NOC was found to have purchased the land through middlemen instead of directly from the landowners. Although the records of the NOC show huge purchase prices, the landowners did not get the prices as shown by the NOC. It is alleged that the purchase prices were found to be up to 54 times the government rates.

The NOC was also found to have purchased land adjacent to rivers. One is adjacent to the Lothar Khola in Chitwan, while the other abuts the Rohini River in Bhairahawa. The NOC has tried to defend the purchases, arguing that as storage facilities require water in case fires break out, it is justifiable to procure the riverside land. As the NOC was defending the purchases, the land near the Rohini River was inundated the other day. Even nature has debunked the justification of the NOC for purchasing the riverside land. It is also alleged that the NOC even purchased more land than approved by the Board of Directors for the sake of commission.

Despite glaring irregularities seen in the land purchase deal, the NOC officials are crying hoarse that the said plots of land were procured by following all the procedures as laid down in the Procurement Act, 2063. What is more, they are saying in a rather challenging tone that they will procure more land in the days to come by following similar procedures. 

It is alleged that irregularities have been taking place in the NOC for the last several years. NOC honcho Gopal Bahadur Khadka was accused of embezzling huge funds during the Indian blockade two years ago in collusion with fuel entrepreneurs and even the government. Once the Cabinet was about to take action against Khadka but on the strength of political clout he was allowed to go scot-free.

Political factor

Corruption thrives when political influence sides with it. The spoils system plays a major role in encouraging corruption. In a sense, the political system is to blame for fostering corruption in the country. There were several complaints against Gopal Bahadur Khadka regarding issue of licences to operate petrol pumps and gas industries, purchase of tankers and bullets, etc. However, no action was taken against Khadka at that time. Perhaps, this has encouraged Khadka and other officials of the NOC to indulge in such irregularities. Had the government taken action at that time, perhaps the scam would not have taken place. 

Corruption has eaten the country hollow. The country is going federal in less than a year. If corruption is allowed to run its course unabated, the county will not be able to make the federal structure a success. As political protection is largely to blame for ever-growing corruption, it is high time the political system was divested of corrupt elements. For this, the CIAA should be provided with even more teeth so that it can investigate any irregularity independently and autonomously. The cooperation from all stakeholders, including political leaders, is highly forthcoming in this regard. 

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