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The corrupting culture of ‘chiya kharcha’

Cilla Khatry

Cilla Khatry

The corrupting culture of ‘chiya kharcha’

Chiya kharcha is a small part of a larger corrupt system where money and connection can facilitate even illegitimate matters. But it’s supposedly the most frustrating as it makes people feel helpless

Chiya is a culture in Nepal. So is chiya kharcha. That dreaded extra at government offices (much like service charge and VAT at restaurants) is what gets our work done and with minimal hassle. But every time our wallets are a bit lighter, we feel a little wronged.

Sociologist Chaitanya Mishra says these under-the-table dealings all of us are so accustomed to is basically abuse of power and position. Unfortunately, it has its roots in history—our grandparents and their parents did it—and thus its hold is still strong. What’s also true is that most of us like to speed things up (as government offices can be notoriously slow) or to not have to wait in long queues or shuttle from window to window, and don’t mind parting with a few thousand rupees (and often more) for it.

“People have money. What they don’t have is time and patience and the willingness to follow protocol when a shortcut is available,” says Mishra. So, we might crib about a system where chiya kharcha is all too pervasive but we are the ones who are, in fact, perpetuating it.

Of the 25 people ApEx spoke to, 21 said they had given chiya kharcha at various government offices in Kathmandu—wards, municipalities, land revenue offices, and the department of transport being the most common places. Thirteen of the 25 said they were asked for a certain amount while eight had offered money themselves in exchange for ‘help’.

Sanjib Shrestha, proprietor, Wicked Villa Resort, says he dislikes the idea of chiya kharcha. However, sometimes it’s inescapable. For instance, he had to finish some official work before the lockdown this year and he was told it would take at least a week, by when the lockdown would have come into effect. Rs 40,000 got the work done in an hour.

“Many government employees are just looting the public. But when the entire system is corrupt, you succumb,” he says.

People’s perception of corruption in Nepal is the worst among 17 Asian countries as surveyed by the global anti-corruption advocacy group, Transparency International. According to the Global Corruption Barometer-Asia, 58 percent of the respondents said corruption had increased the most in Nepal in the past year.

Chiya kharcha is a small part of a larger corrupt system where money and connection can facilitate even illegitimate matters. But it’s supposedly the most frustrating as it makes people feel helpless. It’s also testimony to the great divide between the have and the have-nots, a ‘those who can afford it will be given the service while those who can’t must suffer’ attitude of governance.

Worse, it seems quite evident that grease money is the basis of Nepali polity and corruption of our democracy. So, most people seem to have simply given up, accepting bribery as part of our culture—a necessary evil. Every project, big or small, has a chiya kharcha budget.

Auditor Khagendra Pokhrel says giving chiya kharcha at government offices—to those who are already drawing steady and perhaps hefty salaries (perks not included)—is an irresponsible and immoral thing to do on the public’s part. But when you stand to suffer because of someone else’s lack of integrity, it’s also the only way out.

Every government office has a citizen’s charter in its premises. It clearly states the role of that office and its staff as well as the time it’s going to take to complete the various tasks that particular department is assigned. Failing that, the public has the right to lodge a complaint.

However, the process is long. It further delays your work. And, more likely than not, the blame will ultimately be pinned on slow internet or some other technical glitch, says Pokhrel.

Sociologist Mishra says chiya kharcha is the result of a society that equates position with privilege. Government offices are thus places of service—not for the public but for the officials working there. The attitude is, if you want something, you have to be subservient. Pokhrel adds that holding your ground and not giving chiya kharcha creates a hostile environment.

However, Mishra says all is not lost. He reckons the tendency to ask for chiya kharcha in many government offices is on the decline. In most places it’s not as overt as it was before, he says, and that’s a hopeful start of an imminent change. What the public can do now, he adds, is try and ignore the covert hints.

Swarup Acharya, journalist, Kantipur Publications, believes the reason behind government officials’ hesitance to outrightly ask for chiya kharcha in recent times is the real possibility of sting operations and other similar exposes.

“Everybody and anybody could be carrying a hidden camera or recording the conversation on their phones these days. There are many YouTubers and bloggers doing just that and posting such content online,” says Acharya. That, he adds, has made them a lot more vigilant and less likely to ask for chiya kharcha or bribes which is essentially what it is.

Turns out chiya kharcha doesn’t necessarily always have to be in cash either. Grishma Ojha, project coordinator, Help Code Nepal, says there have been people who have asked for groceries and other such supplies in exchange for their services or favors. The fact remains Nepalis have to part with more than the stipulated amount for official works.

And there is nothing chiya kharcha won’t get done. From easy school admissions to same-day issuing of passports, everything has a price. Fourteen years ago, a recent college graduate failed his driving license trial. For Rs 13,000, he got a license a couple of days later. Another woman in Lalitpur got hers delivered at home for Rs 50,000 a few years ago. A woman who wasn’t born in Nepal has a birth certificate certifying she was. A 55-year-old got vaccinated against Covid-19 when Nepal was apparently only vaccinating people above 65. The Rs 2,500 she spent at the ward office for a recommendation was worth every paisa, she says.

Sociologist Mishra says chiya kharcha will be a part of our lives unless there is an efficient and accountable government. It’s not something individual action can change. As bleak as that might sound, the truth is we are all victims of a corrupt system. For every person who doesn’t give or take chiya kharcha, there are at least a dozen who will.

“What we can and should do is talk about it. Let’s not remain silent and accept it as a part of life,” concludes Mishra.