Experts oppose lawmakers’ demand for pork barrel fundThere are allegations of misuse of the money provided under the controversial fund known Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme.
As the budget announcement nears, some of the ruling coalition lawmakers have been pressing for the revival of the controversial Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme, popularly known as Constituency Development Fund.
A month back, Finance Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat had sought suggestions on the budget in the Nepali Congress Parliamentary Party meeting. Participants of the meeting had confirmed that most of the lawmakers were of the view that they should get the funds under the Local Infrastructure Development Partnership Programme.
The programme is a government initiative to provide members of the federal parliament and the provincial assemblies with funds from the budget to be spent at their discretion on small- and medium-scale projects in their constituencies.
Some Congress lawmakers are of the view that if the rural municipality chair, district coordination committee, municipality and metropolitan city and provinces can have access to the budget, why not the federal lawmakers?
“What we have been saying is that the amount should not be allocated as the Constituency Development Fund. But what if some emergency occurs in our constituencies,” said Bir Bahadur Balayar, a Congress lawmaker.
Ram Nath Adhikari, another Congress lawmaker, said, “We have not been lobbying hard to revive the Constituency Development Fund. But the point is: the wards, [rural] municipalities and provinces all get the money to spend, why not the federal lawmakers?”
The lawmakers have been asking for the inclusion of the projects in the budget. “We are not trying to distribute the money. Give us at least three projects; otherwise, someone has to answer why we backtrack on our promises during the elections,” Adhikari said.
The programme, however, has been very controversial.
The federal government halted resources for projects under the programme in July 2020, deciding to use the remaining funds for Covid-19 response. But the KP Sharma Oli-led government in 2021 released the budget for the programme. After widespread criticisms, the then finance minister Yubaraj Khatiwada in the budget for fiscal year 2020-21 reduced the resources for the programme to Rs40 million from the earlier Rs60 million for each constituency. The federal government had allocated Rs6.6 billion for the programme in the fiscal year 2020-21, down from Rs9.90 billion in 2019-20. The programme was discontinued in the fiscal year 2021-22, but provinces continue to make such allocations.
The programme has been mired in controversies as some of the lawmakers are believed to have been misusing the funds, promoting policy corruption. Many have been saying it promotes the misuse of taxpayer money because it is run mainly by local consumer committees usually at the behest of party cadres. Even the annual reports of the auditor general have mentioned that the funds have not been used properly.
The debate has also reached the House of Representatives and National Assembly.
The lawmakers’ lobbying for the funds comes at a time when the government has taken cost-cutting measures in various sectors citing a severe resource crunch. The finance ministry has informed other ministries that the budget for them is going to be reduced in the upcoming fiscal year. Officials at the health ministry are asked to cut down their proposed annual budget by over 40 percent. Also, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport is tipped to receive a budget slashed significantly, which may hamper even regular development projects.
Speaking at the House of Representatives meeting on Wednesday, Rastriya Swatantra Party lawmaker Sumana Shrestha said her party is completely against reviving the programme. She even demanded a ruling saying that it should not be revived at all, as it will lead to policy-level, institutional corruption.
National Assembly members had drawn the attention of the prime minister last week that if the amount is allocated for House lawmakers, the National Assembly members should not be left out either. They, however, said that they are unanimously against allocating the amount in the name of Constituency Development Fund.
Experts say it is not right to revive the fund, as it will weaken the local level institutions and promote corruption.
“The local infrastructure works are the responsibility of local governments, and the provinces should focus on provincial level works. If the federal lawmakers try to involve themselves in small and local projects, what is the relevance of the local units?” said Khim Lal Devkota, an expert on federalism.
Observers say the programme goes against the role of the lawmakers, who are supposed to hold the executive that spends the money to account. Though the duty of lawmakers is to make laws and policies, they often promise local development to lure voters during elections, said Bimal Koirala, former chief secretary of the government.
Allowing federal lawmakers to spend the money will weaken the local level institutions, Koirala argues. “Local level works should be carried out by local governments,” he said. “Only then will they be strengthened.”