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Covert affairs

Publication Date : 22-10-2012


Nepal's Labour and Employment Minister Kumar Belbase has been forced to resign after he was caught on videotape demanding bribes to register new overseas employment companies. The manner in which the recording was made and exposed is somewhat novel. The media did not have much to do with revealing this. Rather, it was a non-governmental organisation that mobilised people for the “sting operation”. Although the sting operation conducted by ordinary citizens has a long tradition in neighbouring India, this is the first time that it has occurred in Nepal. The closest we had come to it was last year when a woman who was harassed by officials at the Tribhuvan International Airport caught the incident on her phone and disseminated the recording. Then, too, the airline official was punished. With the spread of mobile technology, “sting operations” are likely to catch on. This is a new practice in our democracy: the attempt by citizens or small organisations to take initiative into their own hands, reveal corruption and harassment and seek redress.

On the surface it seems that such methods are quite effective. Minister Belbase, after all, had to resign and the airport official was punished. These are positive steps. Not only have corrupt officials been punished but it is clear that the government is quite receptive to information made public through sting operations. But this should not be considered sufficient. The rot runs deep. The incident at the airport was only symptomatic of widespread attempts by officials to take advantage of passengers. The ministry of labour and employment, meanwhile, is known to exploit those seeking employment abroad. In an ideal world, such “sting operations” should lead the government to not just fire the offending official but to launch a detailed investigation into government departments and seek effective strategies for reform. In other words, punishment is not enough, institutionalisation is much more important.

This perhaps points to a weakness of the “sting operation” as well. These are useful in uncovering specific malpractices. The dissemination of recordings caught by sting operations can cause a sensation and lead the government to take immediate action. But the sensation caused by it is short lived and is soon forgotten. In fact, there is a need for the sting operation to be followed up with the painstaking work of analysing the weaknesses of various government organs, producing reports and recommendations and publicising these sufficiently to get public attention. And this has to be the work of the media, think tanks and various other organisations that can pressure the government into action. In any case, sting operations have introduced a new element into Nepal’s democracy. How useful they will continue to be will depend on a number of other factors including the effectiveness of various other organs, both governmental and not.


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