Despite concerns, government releases budget for projects chosen by lawmakersRs6.56 billion has been released for Local Infrastructure Programme even as House has been dissolved and polls announced.
The KP Sharma Oli government, which has technically turned into a caretaker administration since the dissolution of the House on December 20, released on Monday around Rs 6.56 billion for the highly controversial Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme.
The programme is a lawmakers-led scheme which faces criticism for being distributive and many say it promotes misuse of the funds, as it is mainly run by local consumer committees usually at the behest of political party cadres.
That the budget has been released after the dissolution of the lower house of Parliament, which effectively means there are no lawmakers, the government move has come into question.
Under the programme, lawmakers “supposedly” play a lead role in selection and monitoring of the projects.
Experts and analysts say the budget release after declaring the elections could give undue advantage to some candidates.
After dissolving the House, the Oli government has called snap polls for April 30 and May 10.
“The budget of Rs6.56 billion has been released to implement various projects in 164 out of 165 electoral constituencies,” Basanta Adhikari, spokesperson for the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration, told the Post. “Only constituency for which the budget was not released under this programme is Constituency-3 of Sunsari from where Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar was elected.”
After the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority filed a corruption case against Gachhadar, a senior Nepali Congress leader, along with other 174 persons, in February last year in relation to the infamous Baluwatar land scam, he has remained suspended as lawmaker as per the Corruption Prevention Act-2002.
As in the past, the budget has been fragmented mostly into smaller projects.
“Each project identified by the lawmakers has a cost ranging from Rs500,000 to Rs10 million,” said Adhikari.
The budget has been released to implement a total of 4,552 projects, according to the ministry. This means, each project got Rs1.44 million on an average.
“Such distributive projects help the [erstwhile] lawmakers have political influence in their constituencies,” said former minister and finance secretary Bidyadhar Mallik. “As elections have been announced, there should have been certain control over finances that would provide undue advantage to certain candidates.”
It’s not yet certain though if elections will happen, as Oli’s House dissolution move has been challenged in the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana-led Constitutional Bench is conducting a hearing on as many as 13 writ petitions against the House dissolution decision.
The country will go to the polls only if the court validates the Oli government’s decision to dissolve the House.
In a recent interview with the Post, former chief election commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel said that continuation of the programme would be unfair to those candidates who were not members of the dissolved House, in case elections are held.
“For the elections to be considered fair, all candidates should get a level playing field,” Pokhrel told the Post. “Such programmes don’t give equal opportunities to all candidates.”
After implementation of development projects was stalled due to the coronavirus lockdown in the last fiscal year 2019-20, the government had decided to use the unspent fund meant for the programme to fight the Covid-19 pandemic amid intense public pressure.
But this year, the government decided to release the budget despite widespread concerns over possible misuse of the fund, especially to influence the voters.
Previously run as two separate programmes—Constituency Infrastructure Special Programme and the Constituency Development Programme, the Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme has also been criticised for discretionary powers given to lawmakers to choose projects that often benefited their loyalists.
Under the programme, the government in the fiscal year 2020-21 had allocated Rs40 million for each constituency. The programme is implemented through the local governments with the joint funding of federal and local government resources.
Adhikari, however, said that the lawmakers’ influence would not be so big, as they don’t get involved in the implementation of the projects after they are selected.
According to the working procedure governing the programme, a directive committee, headed by a directly elected lawmaker with a lawmaker elected under the proportional category and a National Assembly member as members, is responsible for selecting and monitoring projects.
“The District Coordination Committee will monitor the progress in projects under this programme in the absence of lawmakers,” said Adhikari.
But experts say releasing the budget which is meant for lawmakers when there are no lawmakers itself is a wrong practice. And since the government, after announcing the elections, has turned into an electoral government, it must have been mindful, according to them.
Pokharel, the former chief election commissioner, said that since it’s the responsibility of the Election Commission to ensure that elections are fair, it must pay heed to such activities.
“If the commission finds that the implementation of the programme does not provide a level playing field for candidates and could potentially affect the fairness of the polls, it must take necessary action,” Pokhrel told the Post.
If the court clears the way for elections, the first phase of voting is 93 days away.
The commission said that it has nothing to say at this point in time about the lawmakers-led programme and it has no plans to ask the government to stop it immediately.
“The commission will consider taking a decision on the programme once we announce the election code of conduct and publicise the election programme,” Election Commissioner Narendra Dahal told the Post in a recent interview.
In the run-up to the last parliamentary elections in 2017, the commission had ordered the government to stop implementation of the lawmakers-led programme after the code of conduct was enforced about three months before the elections.
The government has released the budget for the programme this year also at a time when it is struggling to meet the revenue target because of the pandemic. The government is also negotiating with donors for financial help to procure Covid-19 vaccines.
The Health Ministry has estimated around Rs48 billion for the Covid-19 vaccination programme. The government has also sought help from philanthropic organisations, donors and businesses urging them to put money into its “vaccine fund” created to generate resources.
The constituency programme, however, has been made even more distributive this fiscal year. The provision that required the committees to spend half of the budget on programmes that are estimated to cost more than Rs5 million has been removed from the working procedure. 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 of over Rs1 million, can be implemented in each constituency.
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. Experts have questioned this move, saying this gives room for irregularities as it allows the consumer committees selected by political parties to implement all the projects.
Mallik, the former minister and finance secretary, said that the government should rather freeze the budget meant for projects under the Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme for this fiscal year.
“The budget can rather be diverted to other areas or utilised in other pressing needs,” Mallik told the Post, “such as procuring Covid-19 vaccines.”