Nepal, known for its mighty mountains and Buddha's birthplace, is now mired in corruption scandals. According to Transparency International's 2013 corruption perception index, Nepal ranks 116 out of 177 countries. Nepali media is littered with cases of misuse of public funds in every part of the country.
One woman is fighting to change that.
Sharada Bhusal Jha, 38, is fierce and brave. She staged three hunger strikes in the last three years. She eats once a day and walks on foot to save money. Jha is waging a lone fight against endemic corruption in the country's public institutions.
Born to a Brahmin family in 1975 in Arghakhanchi in far-western Nepal, Jha married a Madheshi man in Mahottari district in the South. She saw massive oppression of women in her village in the early 1990s and decided to wage fight against the system. Domestic violence, including rape, polygamy, and slavery of women were being dismissed as non-issue by those running the village.
For more than five years, she kept raising the issue in her village, and brought
together women to fight against the system. But it was one particular incident in 1999 changed her life's mission. At a village council meeting, Jha was forced to sign a meeting manifesto without being granted the right to read the information contained in it. The village elders wanted to pass the annual budget with no discussions on the line items. When she refused to sign the document, the elders at the meeting beat her until she bled, and used her thumbprint on the document.
When she reported the incident to the district chief, he not only denied to register the case, but also threatened to arrest her and take action for disrupting the village council meeting.
But the beating and the humiliation only solidified her resolve to change the corrupt institutions in her hometown. Jha tells stories of village-level politicians using names of dead people to claim elderly pension benefits from the government.
She filed a case to the government in 1999, requesting for a freeze of the local budget provided by the state to her village. No action was ever taken by the government.
She staged a 13-day hunger strike in 2011 in her village, along with three other
locals. Her action garnered national attention, and a high-level government officials from Kathmandu met with Jha. She ended her strike after the government team promised to investigate corruption charges filed against the village council.
However, local officers at the district office burned all the filed cases and documents. Even the investigation and recommendations by the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) -- the nation's top anti-graft agency -- reports were destroyed. Apart from firing the village secretary, no one was ever charged of corruption.
More bizarre, her separate complaint reports to the CIAA have also been destroyed. She even remembers the case number assigned to her reports: 3956.
In 2013, she staged a nine-day hunger strike in Kathmandu for the second time. A similar agreement was signed with the government, but no actions were taken.
Tired of government apathy towards her demands to investigate and file charges against those accused, Jha staged third hunger strike in 2014 for 13 days at Khulamanch, Kathmandu's biggest public space. This time, her strike was "silent." She did not talk or grant interviews.
At the end of the 13th day, she performed last rites, based on Hindu tradition, of the Nepali government. She shaved her head and wore white outfit, a ritual often performed in the name of dead family members. According to her, the government was no longer "alive" for the people.
An avid Facebook user, her walls are plastered with corruption cases, and her
filings for information on details of public funds used in various projects across the country.
Nepal passed Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2007, which allows ordinary citizens to receive detailed information on public expenditure of previous fiscal year. Jha truly believes in the power of the law to bring corrupt practices to surface. Using the RTI Act, she has so far filed more than 1,000 cases of corruption charges against different public institutions and individuals.
Jha has inspired other activists as well; Pradeep Baral, a student at Nepal Commerce Campus in Kathmandu, is waging his own battle on his college. When he demanded to see the audit reports of the college, the college chief threatened him to expel from the school. Using the Right to Information Act of 2007, when he finally got hold of 2012-2013 audit reports, there was more than 2.6 million rupees of embezzlement in the campus. While his repeated requests to the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Education have been duly ignored, Baral is working to file a case against the campus administration to the CIAA.
Leaders from major political parties are said to be the protectors of gang leaders, corrupt officials and contractors who collectively siphon off billions of dollars every year from the country treasury.
The CIAA has been lately active in arresting and prosecuting few individuals, but most never get punished. Brave fighters like Jha and Baral endure humiliation and death threats, while corrupt public officials and contractors never face justice.