March 28, 2017 12:45 AM NPT
Social conduct bill
According to a bill that has just been endorsed by the parliament’s State Affairs Committee (SAC), current Home Minister, Bimlendra Nidhi, as well as his predecessor in the same portfolio, Bamdev Gautam, would be deemed criminals, liable for jail sentence of three months each. They would also have to pay in fines the sums that their families received in dowry. This is because both of them, to account for their vast trove of gold ornaments, had written in their property details that the gold in question had been received in dowry. Also, even before the committee’s endorsement of the bill on Sunday, both giving and receiving dowry was outlawed. Yet even senior government officials routinely defied the ban. This is why we doubt the new bill, if and when it’s enacted by the parliament, can actually be implemented. For its other provisions are as dicey. The SAC has proposed capping the number of guests who can be invited to a wedding reception at 501 while the number of guests for other occasions should not cross 251. Those violating the ceiling will be liable to a fine of Rs 50,000. The bill also makes submission of details of wedding expenditures at local ward offices mandatory.
This bill was, interestingly enough, first proposed by Bamdev Gautam while he was the home minister in Sushil Koirala’s cabinet—and it smacks of populism and hypocrisy. First, it will be hard to implement: who will actually count the number of guests at a public function? What if a family decides to hold two separate functions for the same wedding? If the past is any guide, the most egregious violators of such provisions will be high-ranking government officials themselves, and they are likely to get away with it. In other words, these laws will be selectively applied. It is also an instance of brazen hypocrisy on the part of our senior politicians who resort to all kinds of lies to account for their ill-gotten wealth. These are the same parliamentarians who last year increased their pay and perks by a whopping 42 percent, with their new monthly packet exceeding Rs 80,000. This will cost the national treasure an additional Rs 230 billion a year. And now these self-serving MPs want to police public life.
It is true that the well-off members of our society are given to ostentatious displays of their wealth, which in turn puts less well-off families under social pressure to spend more in their public functions. Many of these lower- and middle-class folks often have to take out loans to tide over a marriage in the family. There are these concerns. But we are not sure it’s possible to impose social restrictions in a country where the writ of the state is already weak. It might not even be desirable. The rich families can always bribe a local official to give a green light to their public ceremony, however big it is. Similarly, if they are willing, the families of prospective brides and grooms can silently agree on a dowry amount, and no one will know. So the proposed laws will be as good as useless. Perhaps a more effective way to cut down on social evils like dowry and ostentatious gatherings is for our rich and powerful—and there are countless past and present MPs and ministers among them—to first start policing their own behavior and set the right example.