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Watchdogs of Acham

Publication Date : 03-12-2013

 

Radio shows are educating and empowering rural Nepalis about their citizen rights and responsiblities

 

She runs a comb through her white hair while humming along with the tune playing on her old Chinese radio set.

This set is one of Sarita Pariyar Damai’s most prized possessions.

“It is the only source of information when you’re illiterate like me,” says the 68-year-old from Jalpadevi, Achham district. In fact, it was through this very medium that Damai learnt about the social security entitlements provided by the Nepal government to the elderly.

“As soon as I heard that, I called my grandson and went straight to the VDC office to make inquiries,” she says. “All thanks to Mr Budget.”

‘Mr Budget’ is the nickname given to 24-year-old radio producer Kamal Rawal, who hosts the popular weekly show Budget Hamro Sarokar.

The programme is designed to impart budget education to listeners by delving into the various plans and policies to do with the local budget, mostly via interviews with village development committee (VDC) policymakers.

Rawal’s fierce, yet diplomatic style of questioning has incited discussions on irregularities witnessed in budget expenditure, and matters of corruption and lack of transparency in budget distribution.

“My report on the irregularity of budget spending and the hint that political parties were involved in the questionable distribution of social security entitlements caused quite the uproar,” the young producer says.

“However, the VDC official who was later interviewed on this matter actually thanked us for raising the issue, and promised that he would look into the matter.” In this way, the radio show not only aims to educate citizens of their duty to familiarise themselves with local budget and policies, but also to make various power holders accountable.

While interviewing locals about the VDC budget, Rawal realised that many people were unaware of the fact that participatory budget procedures could ensure effective and responsive policy and plans that catered to community needs.

“But a radio programme alone cannot influence community members to take action.”

This is why Budget Hamro Sarokar has collaborated with the youth-led NGO ‘Youth in Empowerment Sector’ (YES), along with other civil society organisations to initiate a monthly interaction programme in eight VDCs in Achham.

The forum brings influential local policymakers, local stakeholders, media personnel and academics together once a month to discuss the challenges and problems that they have encountered with regards to local governance.

These discussions are recorded and then aired on radio. Amir Kumar Rana, the President of YES, justifies the need for such interaction platforms, “Many participants in the programme complained that local government officials mistreat them when they go to inquire about the local budget,” states Rana. “There have been cases when public expenditures related to the budget have been sealed from the public.”

Such irregularities are hardly news in Achham. There have been multiple cases where the municipal budget allocated for women’s development has been spent in building local infrastructure like toilets or roads—decisions that were taken without even consulting local stakeholders.

Satya Sawar, who works as a community educator in Jalpadevi, elaborates: “We have several forums made up of local stakeholders to bring attention to the problems of women,” she says.

“But these forums at times are politically guided, and due to their vested interests, the budget allocated to us is used elsewhere.”

She recalls a time when, inspired by a discussion in the monthly forum, they’d decided to form a pressure group to confront VDC officials about why the budget allocated for women was being spent on road construction sans consultation.

Bowing to the group’s demands, the VDC officials committed to paying better attention to gender budgeting, and making women’s participation mandatory in municipal budget consultations.

Suresh Swar, a college student who attends the interaction programmes regularly, shares, “Being part of the programme has made me realise how big a role we as citizens, especially youths, can play in holding policymakers accountable…if there is no transparency in how the budget is spent, development in Achham will stagnate, and we’ll all be responsible.”

Participants are free to voice their concerns and openly criticise the VDC’s decisions on how the local budget is spent. The forum not only paves the way for a culture of transparency, but has also provided participants a platform to share good practices of their VDC’s in ensuring accountability.

They also discuss the challenges that they have witnessed in the path of ensuring civic engagement in participatory budget development and review. What is encouraging is that the programme has also been recognised as a reliable information portal by the local VDC officials, several of whom now take part in the monthly discussions and entertain questions as well as the concerns of the participants. 

All the social accountability practitioners in Achham are hopeful that accountability in local governance can be ensured if community members, along with the local media, are groomed as watchdogs, which will not only empower them but also encourage them to pressure power holders to design and implement community-centric local budgets.

“Right information turns into empowerment, which in turns helps ensure accountability,” Rawal says. “And that’s our goal.”

 

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