CIAA action on Lalita Niwas scam
In what could be called a major operation in more than a decade, Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) filed a charge-sheet against 175 individuals at the Special Court on Wednesday in connection with their involvement in illegally registering Lalita Niwas land in the names of various individuals. The CIAA has implicated political leaders including Nepali Congress (NC) leader and former deputy prime minister Vijaya Kumar Gachchhadar, former ministers Chandra Dev Joshi, Chhabiraj Pant and Dambar Shrestha, former government secretary Dinesh Hari Adhikari, former secretary and CIAA ex-chief Dip Basnyat and businessman Min Bahadur Gurung, the owner of Bhatbhateni Supermarket, among others. Gachhadar was the line minister and Basnyat the secretary at Ministry of Physical Infrastructure when they decided to register the land in the names of various individuals and fake tenants. Lalita Niwas land grab is a major corruption scandal of our times. More than 299 ropanis of government and guthi (trust) land at Lalita Niwas in Baluwatar had been registered in the names of various individuals, and the ownership had been transferred to various other people even by creating fictitious land tenants.
Nothing had been done to bring back this land. In this respect, CIAA should be praised for taking this action. But this otherwise laudable move has become the matter of dispute and has also been perceived as the case of selective prosecution. CIAA has not filed corruption cases against former prime ministers Madhav Kumar Nepal and Baburam Bhattarai though cabinet level decisions were taken during their tenures to legalize the transfer of government land to individuals. The CIAA recorded the statements of Nepal and Bhattarai but did not implicate them. Likewise, NCP General Secretary Bishnu Paudel and Supreme Court Justice Kumar Regmi have been spared on the ground that they are ready to return the land to the government. This has raised the public concern that Paudel, who ‘bought’ land in the name of his son, has been given clean chit simply for his association with ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Experts have raised question over CIAA’s investigation procedures precisely on this ground. Former CIAA chief Suryanath Upadhyay told Republica that CIAA should have studied the circumstantial evidence also in case of those not dragged to court. CIAA has been seen as favoring some individuals over others.
Main opposition Nepali Congress has also described the CIAA action as biased. It is unfortunate that the action of the anti-graft body has landed in controversy. But it also raises the need for expanding CIAA’s jurisdiction to allow it to investigate cabinet level decisions as well. Otherwise, there always remains a danger of the political parties providing endorsement to the faulty moves through the cabinet decisions, to escape the arm of anti-graft body. In a democracy, nobody is above the law, whatever their political status or affiliation. Any provisions that automatically absolve some leaders need to be amended. Some of those who have been implicated by CIAA have argued that they have been framed. While initiating action against corruption, nobody should feel targeted or spared simply for their political affiliation or lack thereof. Lalita Niwas land, which was illegally transferred to various individuals, should be freed, but in the process, no guilty, irrespective of their status and political affiliation, must be spared and no innocent person prosecuted.