One of the contemporary stories of interest for people who watch and read news on a daily basis is the ongoing saga of the Tax Settlement Commission and its one-time honcho, Chudamani Sharma. I don’t know if it’s just me or not, but every time I see him on TV or on print media, he has this permanently smug expression which seems particularly unusual for someone in his current predicament.
But all of us know that the reason behind it is because he holds some cards very close to his chest – the same cards that will either see him get released with a slap on the wrist or see some high-level leaders get strung up for their part in this scam. You don’t get any marks for guessing which of those options is going to play out during the course of this whole charade. This case and that smug expression is, in essence, a reflection of the attitudes of our state and various branches of administration to the concept of ‘conflict of interest’.
This ‘conflict of interest’ is part of a wider problem of ethics in our public administration and yet it does not get the scrutiny it warrants. Contrary to being scrutinized and addressed it is actively ignored so it can be leveraged in the future for favors and/or to make key personnel and groups more malleable to unethical demands. It is all pervasive – from politics and governance to administration, bureaucracy, and even the judicial system.
The very foundation of political survival in Nepal rests on acting exclusively for self or party interests via disbursement of political favors, placating supporters or interest groups with lucrative ‘portfolios’ or ‘projects’ resulting in, in most instances – the compromise of national interest. Every change in government brings with it a plethora of transfers, promotions, and appointments that have everything to do with ‘self-preservation’ and political survival and little connection to ‘public interest’. The appointment of Lokman Singh Karki, the impeachment fiasco of Sushila Karki, and sundry incidents of appointments and transfers with which we are preoccupied most of the time are reminders that the machinations of public administration aren’t really geared towards ‘public interest’.
Sharma and his accomplices on the run not only failed to fulfill their remit but also actively worked against their public duty to derive personal benefit from their office. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the sort of opportunity that emerges from the prevalence of these types of ‘conflict of interest’ is part of the enduring appeal of a government job. You wonder why people hanker after plum postings in customs, revenue, the police, and even the judicial system. A government job is basically like a one-time lottery - once you land a job you can then start focusing your efforts on other ways you can rake in the moolah – get a ‘lucrative’ transfer, start a business, teach on the side and what have you. And where once there was subtlety to this art (for lack of a better word), either due to fear of the consequences or even ‘shame’, it has become a lot more brazen in the past few years.
This is partly due to destruction of political neutrality and the rampant politicization of almost every facet of the administration. Because of the musical chairs that is our government (and as a result the administrative appointments), there is a need to make hay while the sun shines – which partly drives these shameless acts. Apparently, there are no legal or time restrictions on bureaucrats entering the private sector or working with INGO’s and donor agencies immediately after retirement.
So, once you have reached the upper echelons you start cultivating the sort of relationships that will serve you later in your ‘retired’ life when you can peddle all that ‘experience’ for a consultancy fee. You will then start doing the job that you should have done in your official capacity to begin with. If our former chief secretary can trivialize his post by lobbying for a second rung job at ADB (he certainly didn’t land the job overnight) whilst occupying what is the highest administrative job in the land, then what’s to stop other bureaucrats from treating their jobs sans the gravity they deserve.
It is this ingrained culture that enables a person to work at a government job here, draw benefits from the state even after having acquired citizenship of a foreign country – which is tantamount to mooching off the state whilst already having pledged allegiance to some other country. You get ‘scholarships’ for your children in foreign countries, often to courses that are well beyond your means, attend invitations by foreign governments or multi-lateral agencies on visits and study tours and numerous other opportunities; all of which come with strings attached and which have the potential to corrupt their decision-making capacity. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and our bureaucrats know it only too well but go along with it anyway because they might not be afforded this opportunity another time.
These instances of conflicts of interest occur not only in the public sector but also in the private sector, in hospitals and schools that fleece patients and parents alike and in the aid and development sectors with the self-perpetuating nature of their work. All this bureaucratic bashing is necessary because our administration is responsible for decision making, policy inputs, and implementing mechanisms and it is important to make that sector the starting point for efforts aimed at stemming the rot. But it’s easier said than done. As Thomas Bell put it in his brilliantly written book, Kathmandu: ‘Bureaucratic incomes derive precisely from not reforming’. There have been instances of reform being attempted but when the resistance comes from within, change is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The writer loves traveling, writing, and good food when he is afforded an escape from the rat race. He can be contacted at email@example.com