Finance Minister Yuba Raj Khatiwada sought the unanimously agreed suggestions from members of the federal parliament, the other day, as to whether to continue with Constituency Infrastructure Development Fund allocations in the upcoming budget for 2020/2021 or scrap it in view of the resource constraints facing the nation due to protracted challenges of posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the issue has been discussed widely in the context of making efficient and effective use of resources to meet the budgetary constraints, we can take clues from the decision taken by the government of India on this count recently. The Indian government promulgated an ordinance to scrap the fund allocations to parliamentarians sending a strong message that the scarcer resources cannot be appropriated to serve the interests of the lawmakers at a time when the nation is grueling under the severe financial squeeze.
The government in Nepal that commands an unassailable majority in the federal, Pradesh (state) and local parliament has been expected to scrap the fund allocation to deploy the much needed resources in containing the virus’s spread as opposition Nepali Congress seems not opposed to it as shown by its overtures made public recently. Similarly, most of the ruling party lawmakers appear not averse to the idea of redeploying the fund to the needed areas at this time of critical crisis. The constituency development fund allocated to the lawmakers gobbles up sizeable amounts which otherwise could be used in strengthening health facilities, among others, in the country.
In fact, the constituency development fund allocation both at the federal and state level contradicts the principles of federal governance and infringes upon Articles 1, 4, 56 and 57 of the constitution. Article 57 stipulates about the distribution of the state power exercised exclusively and concurrently by federal, state and local level. Each level of the government - federation, state and local - has been allocated exclusive and concurrent competencies in the separate schedules of the constitution.
Almost two decades ago, when the erstwhile UML party was elected to run the government, the allocation for constituency development fund was initiated. Nepali Congress party that ruled the country time and again in the past not only gave continuity to it but allowed to have an incremental twist to the amount allocated in the name of lawmakers. The incumbent government increased the amount to Rs 60 million per federal parliament constituency despite the fact that the proper utilisation of the fund has come under the ring of suspicion. The allocation has undermined the values and norms of federal governance based on principles of subsidiary.
In fact, the fund allocation of such a nature goes against the principle of democratic checks and balances and jeopardizes the fundamentals of democratic local governance. In fact, the present government commanding almost two-thirds majority in the federal parliament and also holding sway in state and local government should justifiably discontinue the allocation at this time of crisis. As democratically elected state and local governments are in place carrying out mandates and functions relevant to the local needs and priorities, allocations to the lawmakers to carry out the similar type actions is sheer illogical. In fact, constituency development fund allocation goes against the letter and spirit of the constitutional provision that recognises and entrenches local government to exercise state authority on a par with the state and federal government.
Resource allocation to be spent under the discretion of lawmakers both at the federal and state levels has been fraught with flawed interest and misplaced priorities. Lawmakers are chosen through democratic elections to serve as people’s deputies for law making institutions to articulate needs and aspirations of the people. They are expected politically, legally and ethically to focus on legislative functions. From separation of the power point of view too, lawmakers should not take over the responsibility and function of executing budget and implement development projects. They should carry out the oversight functions and point out the lapses and shortcomings of the government policies and programmes. When lawmakers themselves desist from their legislative role, takeover of the function of project selection and execution directly or indirectly tends to undermine fundamentals of the democratic polity and governance. Normally, three organs of the government – executive, legislature and judiciary- have their differentiated and distinct roles and structures.
These roles should not be duplicated and overlapped as this will lead into concentration of authority and conflict of interest. Experiences have indicated that the resources allocated for lawmakers offer bleaker picture of their use and utilisation. According to a study, conducted to audit and evaluate the use of the fund, there was no transparency in the formation of the users groups as well as in selection of the local projects. As a result, the expenditures could not meet the actual needs of the people. A sizeable amount remained unsettled raising serious issues on fiduciary risk. Moreover, there have been some cases of duplication of resources as the planning process defined in the rules and regulations was not followed properly.
However, the question at present is not utilisation or misutilisation but it is the matter of the constitutional principles and norms of the federal governance. Instead of strengthening local governments according to the provision of the constitution and local government operation act, allocations of resources to be spent through the federal and provincial lawmakers’ discretion would rather jeopardise local democracy, decentralised development and service delivery at the local level. Moreover, at a time when the country is hard pressed to generate and mobilise resources to combat the problem of COVID-19, it is incumbent upon the government to redirect and redeploy the resources allocated to the lawmakers in the upcoming budget to meet the much needed expenses to fight the corona virus.
(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues. firstname.lastname@example.org)
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