Idols we would like

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On Sunday, the Chief District Officer of Gulmi, Pradeep Raj Kandel, was crowned the Integrity Idol of 2015. The award is conferred annually to a government official who reforms the institution he is working in and makes bureaucracy a little more efficient. In the districts he worked in, Kandel has been credited with making the process of finding documents in a government office fast and hassle free. He also introduced schemes such as ‘each one, teach one’, wherein a government official under his command sponsors the education of at least one child.

The concept of the Integrity Idol is commendable. It appreciates and promotes the selfless acts of government officials (two so far: the first ever winner was Gyan Mani Nepal, a District Education Officer). But it also brings to the fore the fact that such acts are rare and such government officials few. It demonstrates the absurdity of a non-government organisation (Accountability Lab in this case) having to find and award officials who should not need any outside reinforcements to do their job in the first place. That an award has to be created to show that not every bureaucrat is corrupt only indicates how tainted our system is.

Not that anyone needed any hint. Every speaker at the podium on that day began by emphasising the difference between the award nominees and the majority of government officials. Any individual walking into a government office knows how a mole of a problem is turned into a hill and how only money or someone you know at the office seems to eliminate the ‘problem’. And everyone has laughed at the hypocrisy of the slogan for this year’s Civil Service Day: Nijamati sewako sapana: Samriddha Nepal ko rachana (The dream of a civil servant: To create a prosperous Nepal.)

The problem then is what do we do about those who are corrupt, who openly and shamelessly ask for ‘chiya kharcha’. Just over a week before the announcement of the Integrity Idol, news of the Gorkha CDO’s participating in a party organised by police personnel who secretly traded the goods meant for the earthquake affected made the round. He was named and ‘shamed’, but that was about it when it came to the consequences. There are countless others—big and small—who keep misusing their power and profiting off it. Everyone knows why the big names are attached to the National Reconstruction Authority, tasked with overseeing and implementing the post- earthquake recovery plans. Everyone knows why they cringe when the government demands every organisation to route their funds for reconstruction through it.

Since the recovery work ‘began’, I personally have the knowledge of at least one government official explicitly demanding money (in hundreds of thousands) to approve the reconstruction plan of a non-government organisation. The money he demanded could have helped renovate a small public building. But I cannot tell you who that person is. Even revealing that I know might be enough to shut down the project, creating a domino effect, whose ultimate victims will be the earthquake affected. It’s a world gone topsy-turvy where the corrupt ones have the clean chit and the others are forced to play by their rules.

Here is a bigger problem: I can tell you who that person is and it will have no impact whatsoever. He is a small fish, as they say, but not so small that he does not have the capacity to bring others down if he slides down, which means he has a safety net. He must have demanded the ‘commission fee’ on behalf of other officials as well. The money has to lubricate everyone around him or the wisdom goes: he wouldn’t dare. Alternatively, I could file an anonymous complaint with the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, but we know how ‘clean’ and ‘unbiased’ the Commission is. It will hold on to the file for as long the official serves its purpose. Besides, it will be my word against his.

What do we do then? We could wait for the political willpower to clean up the system, but that might be a long wait. Or, we could forget how powerless we have become and celebrate the rare gems that the Integrity Idol honours, hoping against hope that the award inspires others to be the officials the slogans portray them to be.

Published on 16 January 2016, The Kathmandu Post

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