Responsible conduct

  • One can only imagine the kind of conflicts of interest that abound in Nepal’s corridors of power
- Deepak Thapa
Why is it that people who have made a name for themselves in their own fields suddenly find a desire to, in their estimation, crown their achievements by making it as a politician as well?

Nov 16, 2017-The recent announcement à la President Trump by Energy Minister Kamal Thapa via Twitter that the government had decided to scrap the agreement with the Chinese-government-owned China Gezhouba Group to build the Budhi Gandaki Hydropower Project continues to make waves. Prime Minister at the time of the signing of the agreement, Prachanda said that the decision was motivated by ‘petty political interest and prejudice’. His current comrade-in-arms, UML Chair KP Oli, went so far as to claim that the decision to rescind the award was a ploy devised by the Nepali Congress to raise funds for the election by steering the contract to some other company. Such accusations are routinely made by politicians and the truth generally lies somewhere in between, if at all.

It was enough though for the news to be picked up by outlets far and wide, including in China and India. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post asked the fundamental question in the title itself: ‘Has scrapped US$2.5 billion Nepal hydro dam deal with Chinese state firm hurt Beijing’s Himalayan ambitions?’ Echoing the Post, the Times of India stated: ‘In a decision which could have far reaching consequences in the region and for China, Nepal cancelled the Budhi Gandaki hydropower project which had been contracted to a Chinese company.’ More portentously, it continued: ‘Unconfirmed reports said the project might go to India’s NHPC [state-owned National Hydroelectric Power Corporation] instead.’

In case it was lost on anybody, the Times reminded us that the ‘decision is significant, since the agreement with the Chinese company came weeks after Nepal agreed to join Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative…It is likely the Nepalese decision was influenced by India…’ For its part, the Post quoted a Chinese specialist thus: ‘It could involve environmental groups, domestic politics or other interest groups. The Nepalese government still needs China badly for its infrastructure construction.’

All of this could spell the beginning of a Great Game between the two Asian giants as they vie with each other to exploit Nepal’s hydro resources. That is a situation that will not favour Nepal at all since our own national interests are likely to be subsumed into those of our powerful neighbours, albeit through the willing services of whichever political force is willing to play lapdog to either power at any given time.

Whither conflict of interest

What is surprising in this whole episode is that it is not wholly clear if the agreement is actually dead or not. All we have is Thapa’s tweet announcing the same while at least one credible newspaper report has it that a final decision has yet to be reached. And, the same report also mentioned a war of words at the cabinet meeting between Thapa and Finance Minister Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, with the latter against killing the deal with the Chinese company, arguing that it would reflect negatively on the image of the country desperate to attract foreign investment.

Yet, if the news report is indeed true, Karki was also for continuing the arrangement because the Nepali agent for Gezhouba is his younger brother. One wonders why Minister Karki was involved at all in a conversation from which a near relative stands to gain monetarily. Granted that as Finance Minister, he necessarily needs to be involved in all discussions that have to do with the country’s finances, but the proper action would have been to recuse himself first and foremost, citing his close connection with the project. If such is the case with Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, someone with a rather clean reputation, one can only imagine the kind of conflicts of interest that abound in Nepal’s corridors of power.

We witnessed some of that last year when the law regulating the banking sector was more or less driven by bankers masquerading as lawmakers, while the one on schools was reportedly similarly influenced by wealthy owners of private educations institutions who had bankrolled the parties enough to be nominated into the legislature-parliament. Despite the fair amount of noise made by the media and the public, the political parties pretended that there was no conflict of interest when bankers drafted banking laws and school proprietors drafted laws governing schools.

Contractors are another bunch who have taken to dabbling in politics. Continuing with this trend, a news item yesterday reported that there are around 35 contractors in the electoral fray this time. Representing all the major parties, the one common factor among them, besides being contractors, is that they are responsible for perpetually delaying or abandoning contract works worth billions. And, because they are politicians or have politicians in their deep pockets, no action has been possible against them. Hence, for all their claims of fealty to the country’s welfare, we have a political class, in the words of a former Director General of the Department of Roads, that ‘has pushed back the pace of development’.

We have all kinds of laws regarding fitness of office for our lawmakers. Unfortunately, one that would require them to relinquish control over their financial interests is not one. Perhaps it would be an impractical one as well, but, at the very least, they should be barred from being involved in decisions that affect them directly, whether in financial or other terms.

Which brings me to the question of why it is that people who have made a name for themselves in their own fields suddenly find a desire to, in their estimation, crown their achievements by making it as a politician as well. If it is simply power, there are plenty of surrogates who would do their bidding for a much smaller expense and without the kind of scrutiny politicians attract. One understands why goons would try to seek such legitimacy. At present, also following long-established precedent in Nepal, we have two prominent ones, representing each of the two major alliances, hoping to gain social recognition as politicians, an endeavour, unfortunately, both appear likely to succeed in.

Miracle-makers

The past couple or so weeks have also been the time for election manifestoes to be made public. After decrying the inclusion of well-known crime figures among the list of hopefuls, the commentariat has had a field day denigrating all the wild claims and tall promises of our would-be miracle-makers. Given past experiences of non-delivery, one often wonders these documents are even produced at all. Or, try for at least a bit of modesty.

Let’s take one of the tallest of promises. The Left Alliance has promised to raise Nepal’s per capita income to $5000 in 10 years. Assuming that figure is currently $862 since that is what the government declared in May earlier this year (although the World Bank still maintains it was $682 in 2016), a simple Excel calculation shows that the country will have to notch a sustained growth of over 19 per cent every year over a decade to reach that goal, a feat never before accomplished by any country. Even the Chinese miracle did not once cross 16 percent in all those heady years and managed an excess of 14 percent in only some. But, then nothing is impossible—at least not in the world of those who would believe they can pull the wool over our collective eyes.

Published: 16-11-2017 07:32

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