A bulldozer ploughs through a rice terrace being readied for paddy planting for a new Ring Road in Bajhang. An excavator tears through an ancient pipal tree to make way for a motorable road. A perfectly good road repaved during a monsoon downpour, when a pot-holed street nearby is left as it is.
These are examples from this week’s media depicting what Nepali have come to label Asare Bikas. The phrase describes hurried slapdash construction that happens in the last Nepali month of every fiscal year. The connotation is that there are kickbacks, payoffs involved in such rushed low-quality work. It is no wonder the Nepali words for bikas (development) and binas (destruction) rhyme.
An experienced man recently explained to me why the government ends up spending so much of its development budget right at the end of every fiscal year. His slightly convoluted elucidation of the process: “The goal of starting a poultry farm is set and approved. The benefits are real and there is no doubt that the poor will benefit. Eggs in the diet are also a good side benefit, and the waste can actually generate energy before it is used as fertiliser. The only problem is that in the first quarter of the fiscal year one gets only enough money to buy one fourth of a chicken. In the fourth quarter you have the full amount to buy a whole live chicken. This is why the government is spending Rs4 billion per day in the last two weeks of Asar.”
It is our taxes that prop up the government. On top of all the tax revenue, Nepal receives a good amount of foreign aid and has been benefiting for over seven decades now. We have also received plenty of advice and technical assistance over this period all meant to put Nepal’s development on the right track.
Why then does Nepal still spend all this money in the last two weeks of the Nepali month of Asar? Some of it has to do with corruption, but the high last-minute disbursement is to ensure that there are no cuts in allocation for the upcoming year because of an unspent budget.
Last week, while trying to get back from Nagarkot most roads were closed because they were all being suddenly black topped. We saw workers in yellow helmets weeding the side of roads under the PM Employment Scheme. When we got into Kathmandu, the street dividers at Baber Mahal were all getting a new coat of paint. The metal railings in Kupondole also had wet paint, new street lights were going up at Tankeswor crossing. The capital seemed to be undergoing an eruption of development.
The late rains this year meant that even more Asare development could be squeezed into the last month. The bright side of it was that the hurriedly black-topped road may actually last longer because of the dry spell. This is also a time of the year when many able-bodied young Nepalis who have not left the country are hired as seasonal labor to plant rice. This year, they got the chance to be hired twice: once for Asare development and then for paddy plantation delayed by rains.
The office of the Auditor General identifies and compiles all the non-compliant procurements and spending in its annual report to the President. For all its effort, it does nothing to change the state of the Nepali state. The CIAA files cases against corrupt government officials, but they not only seem to get a clear chit from the courts but end up getting a party ticket to fight elections and become political bosses.
Asar is also the month for training and ‘study tours’ within Nepal, and for officials to go on foreign junkets to finish their budgets. It is an easy budget head to spend the remaining budget quickly. Many of these training programs are never really conducted, but the bills get made and submitted. The people who own venues, resource persons, and participants all get their cuts.
Under the new constitutional arrangement, all money is spent from just over 760 government accounts across Nepal. This is not a lot to keep an eye on given the size of the media and journalists, auditors, opposition parties, civil society organisations working for good governance, and international development partners.
All these agencies cannot be in collusion. Yet, the practice prevails, lubricated by corruption and a fatalistic ke garne culture of acceptance that this is just the way things are in Nepal. Citizens should not accept Asare Bikas because they are the only ones who do not benefit from it.
Anil Chitrakar is the President of Siddharthinc.