After House dissolution, questions raised over local infrastructure programmeIf the elections are held as announced, the programme may be used to influence voters, thereby, affecting the integrity of the elections, experts say.
Questions have been raised over the lawmaker-led Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme following the dissolution of the House of Representatives and announcement of fresh elections.
The programme, which has long been facing criticism for being distributive and promoting misuse of the funds, is mainly run by local consumer committees usually led by cadres of various political parties.
But, successive governments in the past three decades, have continued the programme, previously known as Constituency Infrastructure Special Programme and the Constituency Development Programme, due to pressure from lawmakers.
According to the working procedure governing the programme, a directive committee headed by the directly elected lawmaker concerned and represented by a lawmaker elected under the proportional category and a National Assembly member is responsible for selecting and monitoring projects under the programme.
“After the dissolution of the House of Representatives, there is a question about how the lawmakers of the dissolved House can discharge their duties under the programme,” said Bhanu Acharya, former auditor general.
“The programme also seems out of place as the government is seeking external assistance and donations to procure Covid-19 vaccines,” Acharya told the Post.
Following widespread criticism, the government in June decided to invest unused funds from the Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme for its anti-Covid-19 responses.
“The programme should not have been continued at all,” said Acharya. “When there is greater need for resources for purchasing vaccines and even holding elections, it is not right to distribute funds under such a programme that does not contribute significantly to economic growth.”
The government’s budget for the current fiscal year has reduced the amount allocated for this programme to Rs40 million per constituency from Rs60 million per constituency in the last fiscal year amid a resource crunch faced by the government due to the coronavirus pandemic. This still translates to Rs6.6 billion.
“This is a huge amount which could have been utilised in various projects, including anti-Covid-19 efforts, that give tangible results,” said Acharya.
After the people’s representatives took charge of the local governments in 2017, questions are being asked whether the country needs programmes such as the Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme, which was continued in the name of connecting people with their elected representatives in the absence of local governments.
Critics have also raised questions about the programme’s impact on the elections. As members of the now-dissolved House can spend money from the programme to influence voters, their opponents will not get a level playing field in the upcoming elections, they say.
On December 20, upon the recommendation of the cabinetC President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved the House of Representatives and announced the snap elections on April 30 and May 10. Whether the government’s move was constitutional or not is being debated at the Supreme Court.
Former Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel said continuation of the programme would be unfair for candidates who are not lawmakers of the dissolved House, in case elections are held.
“For the elections to be considered fair, all candidates should get a level playing field. Such programmes don’t give equal opportunities to all candidates,” he said.
According to him, it is the responsibility of the Election Commission to ensure that the elections are fair. “If the commission finds that the implementation of the programme does not provide a level playing field to candidates and could potentially affect the integrity of the polls, it should take necessary action,” he said.
In 2017, during the run up to the federal and provincial elections, the commission had ordered the government to discontinue the programme for the same reason.
But, Election Commissioner Narendra Dahal said that it is not yet time to make a call over the programme as a lot of things related to the elections are undecided. “Once we roll out a code of conduct and publicise the election programme, the commission will take a decision on the programme,” Dahal told the Post.
Even though the government decided to divert the unspent resources under the programme to anti-Covid-19 efforts last year, it has not taken any further decision on it.
According to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration, the contact ministry for local governments, projects to be implemented under this programme have already been finalised in almost all electoral constituencies.
The lawmaker-led directive committees were supposed to select the projects by mid-December. “Except the decision is taken otherwise, the projects under the Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme will go into implementation,” said Dilaram Panthi, under secretary at the federal affairs ministry.
“The working procedure has the provision that the implementation of the programme would not be affected in the absence of lawmakers,” he said.
Even though the lawmakers of the dissolved House were involved in the selection of projects, they won’t be able to monitor the programmes if the Supreme Court does not restore the House of Representatives.
“In such a situation, the government may take some decision for the monitoring purpose,” said Panthi.
Jhapat Bahadur Rawal, a lawmaker of the dissolved House of Representatives, insisted that projects under this Local Infrastructure Development Partnership programme should be implemented.
Rawal, who had moved the court in 2017 over the same issue as elections were round the corner, said that the situation is different from the one seen in 2017. On January 14, 2018, the Supreme Court through interim order had stopped implementation of the projects which were selected after October 14, 2017.
“At that time, lawmakers who had lost the elections could have been involved in the selection and implementation process,” he said. “Now, I am confident that the House has not been dissolved despite an ‘unconstitutional’ move from the Prime Minister.”
He also said that there was no need to halt the implementation of the projects under the programme as projects have already been selected and the lawmakers would not be involved in the implementation process like in the past.
However, the government has added a provision to the working procedure that gives more space for irregularities. The amendment says that only consumer committees can implement the projects. The programme has also been made more distributive as per the new provision despite past efforts to make it more result-oriented.
The new working procedure has removed the provision that required projects with a Rs5 million price tag to be implemented through a contractor selected through a tender process. This leaves space for irregularities.
It has also removed the provision from the working procedure that requires the committees to spend half of the budget on programmes that are estimated to cost more than Rs5 million. The newly amended working procedure approved in October last year by the Cabinet states that a maximum of 30 projects, each having an estimated cost over Rs1 million, can be implemented in each constituency.