Dirty mopWhile changing the laws governing the CIAA is a good thing, the current amendment under discussion falls below par.
Lawmakers are again discussing a bill in Parliament that has little to do with managing the Covid-19 crisis. Last week, the Upper House passed a highly controversial bill—the Nepal Special Service Bill—that allows for the state’s security apparatus to eavesdrop on private conversations, without even needing a warrant. Now, with the all-important budget speech—which will hopefully address job creation and shore up resources to battle the economic slowdown—only a few days away, Parliament seems to have moved on to another controversial set of laws. The ones now in question relate to the ambit of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority.
To be sure, the amendments being discussed, which relate to expanding the anti-corruption watchdog’s jurisdiction to cover the private sector, would ideally stem graft coming from the private sector, something that has been a problem for long. Most recently, the local agent of a swiss security printing firm allegedly leaked conversations he had with then Communication Minister Gokul Baskota. In that case, the watchdog’s scope of powers prevented it from investigating the private sector player’s role in agreeing to the ‘commission’ Baskota had asked for. In another recent controversy, the defence and health ministers were lambasted by the public for allegedly allowing a private company, Omni Group, to overcharge the government for equipment essential in controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Given the strong nexus between industrialists, traders, bankers, bureaucrats and politicians, it would make sense that the private sector too is covered by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Yet, the lawmakers, by using vague language in the proposed changes, have curiously chosen to shield one very important section of Nepali society—political parties. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the political sector is the most corrupt in Nepal, followed by the bureaucracy.
By not explicitly mentioning political parties, the proposed amendment is weakened before it has even been implemented. Moreover, with the language specifying ‘institutions registered as per the law’, it might give the anti-corruption watchdog too much power to read the provisions selectively, so as to support the vested interests of political masters. It was not long ago that the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, during the tenure of Lokman Singh Karki, was found to have selectively targeted those that the commissioner had a vendetta against. Therefore, it is imperative to change the amendment to specify the exact types of entities the watchdog can investigate, and this list must contain political parties as much as they should cover for-profit organisations.
But leaving the scope of the watchdog vague also creates other issues. In its investigations surrounding the Lalita Niwas land graft, the anti-corruption institution was found to have selectively charged only those individuals who are out of favour politically. For instance, while Nepali Congress party member Bijay Kumar Gachhadar, who was minister for physical infrastructure and works when the fraud took place, was implicated and charged, then prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal—a member of the Nepal Communist Party—was not. There are no provisions in the amendment to strengthen the independence of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Instead, the vague ambit might further create more opportunities for bias.
The overhauling of the scope, ambit and working of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority is long overdue. However, the current provisions being discussed will not lead to much progress. If the lawmakers are bent on amending the Prevention of Corruption Act in the midst of a crisis, the least they can do is sincerely work out provisions for positive change.