Your search keywords:

Leveraging RTI: Nepal’s key to curb corruption

Leveraging RTI: Nepal’s key to curb corruption

Corruption in Nepal is a pervasive issue that hinders development and erodes public trust in government institutions. The Right to Information (RTI) Act, a powerful tool for transparency, aims to combat corruption by ensuring public access to information. However, a recent survey reveals that local governments are not RTI-friendly, posing significant challenges to transparency and accountability.

Local governments are not RTI friendly

This author has recently conducted a survey across 753 local governments in Nepal and confirmed that these entities are not RTI-friendly. Specifically, an RTI request for details on the purchase, maintenance, and fuel expenses for motorcycles procured for ward chairpersons revealed that only 210 out of 753 municipalities, or almost 29 percent, provided the requested information.

Among the respondents, Hilihang Rural Municipality questioned the legitimacy of the request, insisting that information be requested in person at their office. Varahatal and nine other municipalities redirected the requests to their financial and physical asset sections without providing the actual information. Approximately 30 percent of municipalities responded via email, stating that no motorcycles were purchased, hence there were no repair or fuel expenses. Most of these municipalities were from Taplejung District and Madhesh Province. Of the total information received, 20 percent came from section officers or IT officers instead of the designated information officer, and 10 percent was provided by the chief administrative officers.

District-wise RTI response rates

Among all 753 municipalities, Syangja District had the highest response rate, with 64 percent (seven out of 11) municipalities providing information. No information was received from any municipality in Dailekh, Dolakha, Eastern Rukum, Salyan, and Solukhumbu districts. Banke district ranked second, with 62.5 percent (five out of eight) municipalities responding, followed by Dolpa with 62.5 percent (five out of eight), and Panchthar, where 62 percent of the municipalities provided information. Districts with only one municipality providing information included Bardiya, Doti, Gorkha, Humla, Kapilvastu, Mugu, Mustang, Myagdi, Rasuwa, Rautahat, Rolpa, and Sankhuwasabha. Rautahat district had the lowest percentage of information providers, with only 5.56 percent (one out of 18) municipalities responding.

Discrepancies in reported expenses

In most local governments that provided information, transportation expenses were recorded according to provincial laws, but some municipalities reported unusually high expenses. One municipality reported spending Rs 68,000 on repairs for a single motorcycle over four months, and monthly petrol expenses were as high as 55 liters. The survey revealed a significant insight: municipalities that operated transparently had no trouble providing information, whereas those with financial opacity or expenditures made without proper legal and procedural frameworks were nearly impossible to obtain information from.

Academia delaying to embrace RTI

The academic sector has also been slow to embrace RTI. A review of 11 university websites revealed that very few publicly posted the photo, contact number, or email of the information officer, a mandatory provision of RTI. Notably, thousands of academic institutions like schools and colleges, where the huge amount of national budget has been spent, are out of access to information because they are not complying with the rule of RTI yet. Second important public service sector is the health sector and they are also not following the obligatory liability of RTI.

Corruption everywhere in Nepal

Corruption permeates every facet of Nepali society, as evidenced by Transparency International's 2023 report, which places Nepal 108th out of 180 countries with a score of only 35 points. Alarmingly, 84 percent of Nepali citizens view corruption as the country’s most significant problem, and 12 percent of those seeking public services admit to paying bribes. The challenge of reducing corruption is exacerbated by the fact that institutions meant to combat corruption often shelter corrupt individuals themselves, exemplified by the fake Bhutanese refugee scandal involving the Ministry of Home Affairs and other leaders of various political parties.

RTI to combat corruption

The right to information predates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On 14 Dec 1946, the United Nations General Assembly stated, ‘Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is dedicated.’ This right implies the ability to gather, transmit, and publish news without interference. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, guarantees the right to information, albeit with some restrictions regarding the reputation of others, national security, incitement to violence, public health, and morals.

However, obtaining information from public bodies is not straightforward. The right to information campaign envisions a scenario where information is disclosed proactively without formal requests. The Right to Information Act 2007 and its Regulations 2008 mandate public bodies to disclose 20 types of information every three months.

The National Information Commission, established 16 years ago, has made limited progress. Only a small number of journalists and activists utilize RTI in their professional lives, and its promotion has not reached the general populace.

Role of citizens and challenges

Citizens can play a crucial role in monitoring government plans. No monitoring has been done on whether the projects have achieved the goals and objectives, which can be done effectively using RTI by general people. The case of Laxman Prasad Sarraf from Parsa district illustrates the challenges faced by citizens in exercising RTI. Despite multiple visits to the municipality and the National Information Commission, Sarraf has not received the requested information about the expenses and design statements for constructing a local school building. This highlights the structural weaknesses within the commission. Most of the information seekers have not been  following the process of RTI because of lack of awareness. 

To curb corruption and promote transparency, it is necessary to promote the positive impact of RTI among the general public. The lack of strong laws to protect whistleblowers also contributes to the difficulty in accessing information. Despite challenges and bureaucratic resistance, RTI empowers citizens to demand accountability and transparency. By leveraging RTI effectively, Nepal can make significant strides in curbing corruption and fostering a more transparent and accountable governance system.