Budget for populist projects in election year a pattern, observers sayThere are fears the current Deuba government too could include such projects in the upcoming budget.
When the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government in September decided to suspend the implementation of several local road projects from among over 1,400 such projects, the move was praised as an effort to prevent fragmentation of resources.
Through a replacement bill on the budget introduced on September 10 last year, the government had announced that small road projects whose contracts had not been awarded, would not be implemented in the current fiscal year 2021-22.
According to the Department of Roads, there are over 700 such projects whose contract has not been awarded and their implementation has been suspended.
Now, government officials and observers are suspicious whether the government would continue the policy of not allocating budget for local road projects at a time when the government has already fixed the date for local elections for May 13 and provincial and federal elections will also be held in 2022.
Currently, the government has initiated discussions about the budget for the next fiscal year 2022-23 to be presented on Jyestha 15 2079 B.S. or May 29.
“We have not yet received the demand for inclusion of more small road projects yet. We are aware that it is the election year when such projects are added,” said Shiva Prasad Nepal, spokesperson at Department of Road. “Implementing such projects will yield hardly any output and only leads to fragmentation of the budget.”
It is not new that the ruling party or parties during the election year make efforts to influence the elections through voter appeasement by announcing new projects and allocating budget for such projects.
On May 21, President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved the House of Representatives and announced fresh midterm elections for November 12 and 19 as per the recommendation of the then KP Sharma Oli-led government. On May 29, the Oli-led government introduced the budget for the current fiscal year through an ordinance.
The budget had included 460 new small road projects. According to the Annual Programme 2021-22 unveiled by the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport following presentation of budget on May 28, the Department of Roads was supposed to implement 1,410 local road projects in the current fiscal year. In the last fiscal year 2020-21, there were 950 such projects implemented by the department.
But on July 12, Oli was ousted from power by the Supreme Court, which also restored the House he had dissolved. The next day, Nepali Congress’ Sher Bahadur Deuba was appointed prime minister. The new government decided to suspend implementation of these projects whose contracts had not been awarded.
When Oli laid the foundations for the 165 road projects in early April last year, it was part of a foundation-laying spree that he had started ahead of the planned elections for April 30 and May 10 last year. But the elections did not take place after the Supreme Court restored the House he had dissolved on December 20 last year.
Former Government Secretary Tulasi Prasad Sitaula said that election-year budgets tend to be distributive as the budget is fragmented among small projects. “It is a long held tradition in the country,” he added.
Even though the local level projects were supposed to be implemented either by provincial or local governments depending on the coverage of projects, there is a tendency of bringing even such projects as federal government projects.
Appendix 5 of the Constitution of Nepal says only the national highways come under the purview of the federal government. This means other roads and bridges should, in principle, be handled by provincial or local governments. But, instead of cutting down their numbers, successive federal governments have continuously been adding such projects.
All those over 1400 projects have been allocated just Rs2.4 million each. The roads department has long been seeking removal of smaller projects from its purview in line with the constitutional jurisdiction of the department, which is a federal authority.
“The lawmakers at the federal parliament also need to show people that they have done something at the local levels. So, they build pressure to include local level projects under central planning,” said Mukti Gautam, former deputy director general at the road department.
According to observers, the central level leaders aim to include local projects under central planning to influence more people. “A central level project can incorporate more area at least in paper if not in budget allocation,” said Sitaula. “So, they believe they can influence more people by bringing local level projects under central government planning.”
Sitaula has first hand experience of how lawmakers aim to include their pet projects in the budget instead of those prioritised by local governments. “In 2014, we asked lawmakers to recommend the projects identified by the then District Development Committees. But they refused while insisting that their pet projects need to be included in the budget,” he said.
Officials and observers said that politicians push for incorporating their pet projects in the budget more during the election years compared to normal years.
“They are not serious projects with proper plans and deadlines,” said Sitaula, who had served as secretary at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport. “Due to limited funding, such projects are implemented shoddily during winter and they don’t outlast the monsoon.” In the case of the over 1400 local roads projects, the government had stated that it would either cancel or hand them over to the province and local levels based on the necessity and relevance.
But, the government has neither cancelled the projects nor handed them over to the local and provincial governments. “We have not implemented the projects whose contracts have not been awarded. But we have started diverting the budget of such projects to those whose contracts have already been awarded,” said Nepal, spokesperson at the department.
Though the government decided not to implement many small road projects, it is planning to announce the budget for the next fiscal year on May 29. At that time, local elections will have already been held.
Provincial and federal elections are likely to be held after the budget is presented for the next fiscal year.
Officials and observers say that the ruling parties will try to use the annual budget to influence these elections in their favour. “If the election code of conduct is enforced before the budget presentation, it may help control such malpractice to some extent,” said Sitaula.