Upamanyu Chatterjee’s seminal novel English August was first published in India in 1988. It tells the story of a young aimless civil servant who goes by the name of Agastya Sen. Chatterjjee goes on to describe Agastya as a civil servant with many interests but very little ambition. When it was first published English August was hailed by many seasoned critics as a novel that captured the zeitgeist of the tumultuous decade which was the 1980’s, a decade when India was awkwardly emerging from decades of economic isolation and ill-conceived socialism. Nearly thirty years later after the novel was first published India may have put behind the side-effects of Nehruvian era socialism but it has not put aside one aspect which appears as a side note in the novel: Corruption in the bureaucracy. As news emerges of how the bureaucracy in Uttarakhand siphoned off money earmarked for relief efforts one can’t help out let out a groan. Except that this time around it’s not a tale of mundane petty corruption. Even as over 5,000 people were killed and hundreds more were stranded without food and water during the catastrophic Uttarakhand floods two years ago, it appears that officials supervising relief efforts stayed like decadent kings in hotels, binged on gulab jamuns, mutton chops and chicken, and made a host of other ill-conceived financial irregularities, an RTI response has revealed.
Some of the bizarre and mind-boggling examples of corruption would make one laugh and cry, perhaps both at the same time. Take the report that officials billed the exchequer Rs 194 for half litre milk. Even donkey milk which goes into the world’s most expensive cheese does not cost Rs 194 for half a litre of milk. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat has ordered a probe into this allegedly bizarre and egregious embezzling of funds by state government officials during relief operations after 2013 floods through submission of inflated and forged bills. Only a higher power knows what will be the result of this by now pointless enquiry. It is in this recent context that United Nations warning that funds being diverted towards Nepal are being grossly misused raises significant concerns. It has been reported that the government of Nepal has received funds and pledges of billions of Nepalese Rupees from countries all over the world, a significant percentage of which has been pledged by India. However, the on-ground reality is that most of these funds have not reached the people who are in dire need of it.
If we have learned anything from the Uttarakhand relief efforts it’s that committing to transparency and actually implementing it are two different things. Given that Nepal ranks much below India on the Corruptions Perception Index it will be tough for the Nepalese government to convince all stakeholders that the government will not misuse relief aid. This is especially true in a country where corruption is endemic. Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has asked the citizens to inform the government about the misuse of the relief aid funds. Be that as it may, the Nepalese public administration and lower level bureaucracy might have other plans. A repeat of what happened during the Uttarakhand relief efforts would be a travesty.