KATHMANDU, April 4: Nepal Army (NA) has been dragged into a controversy again. It is not because of the national army's own doings, though.
The controversy arose after the government decided to entrust the national army with the responsibility of procuring essential medical supplies to fight the spread of Covid-19 through a government to government deal with China. The underlying argument a section of politicians, opinion makers and social media users have raised is: what will be the implication of the government's move to hand over one after another task of 'civilian nature' to the army on the fate of the country's democratic system? The next question they have raised is: Are those in the government trying to do corruption yet again in the procurement of medical supplies as the national army does not fall under the jurisdiction of the anti-graft bodies?
A cabinet meeting on Wednesday decided to hand over the responsibility of procuring medical supplies from China to the national army after the government was forced to scrap the controversial agreement reached with Omni Group. Amid widespread public criticism that the medical items that the government reached an agreement with the controversial business group to procure them from China were priced at exorbitantly high rates, the government scrapped the deal and decided immediately to give this responsibility to the army.
Soon after the decision became public on Thursday, a heated public debate among a section of political leaders, opinion makers and ordinary public started. "When there is a windstorm, the responsibility to build houses is given to the army. When there is an epidemic, the responsibility to buy medicines is given to the army. When the size of budget is big enough, the responsibility of building roads is given to the army. These are not the tasks supposed to be carried out by the army," tweeted central committee member of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Bishnu Rijal.
"Both sides may feel that this is good since the army does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). But this weakens our [political] system. Let us think long-term," he further wrote, while suggesting that this could not only weaken the civilian control of the national army but also pose the risk of using the national army as a tool to promote corruption by political groups with vested interests.
Joining in the same debate, former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai questioned the rationale behind the government's decision to give the responsibility of procuring medical supplies to the national army. "Are there no commerce, supplies or other civilian agencies [to do this task]? Why did the government not choose the G2G method in the first place? he asked. "Has the army been chosen because it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the CIAA?"
Chairman of Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) Kamal Thapa says the national army should not accept such responsibilities even if the government decides so, arguing that it is 'inappropriate' to use the army for such public procurement acts. "This proves the government's efficiency to carry out even its day to day tasks has eroded. I do not think we have reached that situation yet," he tweeted.
NA has been accomplishing various important tasks given by the government within the stipulated deadlines. It was the army that took the lead role in evacuating Nepali nationals stranded in Wuhan city of China after the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and setting up a quarantine facility in Bhaktapur. While the army has been given the responsibility of building major infrastructure projects such as Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway, the national army was entrusted with the responsibility of building 869 houses demolished by a windstorm in Bara and Parsa districts. The army is currently taking the lead in developing isolation wards and transporting medical supplies to different parts of the country.
Security expert Geja Sharma Wagle argued that the decision of the government to entrust the army with the responsibility of procuring medical supplies did not make any sense. "While this sends a message that the civilian government was already a failure, it is not appropriate both for the government to give this responsibility to the army and for the army to accept this task. It is certain that this would drag the army into a serious controversy in the future," said Wagle. "It is natural for the army to manage crises when the country faces such situations. But it is not the task of the army to get involved in public procurement and other kinds of financial dealings."
Senior government officials, however, say that it is the trust that the national army has earned as a result of its sterling work performance and excellent institutional capacity that has made the government to give such responsibilities to the army. They argue that it is nothing but exaggeration to say that giving the responsibility of buying necessary medical supplies to the army at this hour of national crisis through the G2G agreement with China in coordination with the health ministry would pose a threat to the country's political system.
A large section of people have also welcomed the government's decision in the social media, saying that the quality of the medical supplies won't be compromised if they are to be procured by the army and that these items could be delivered to different parts of the country on time since the army has excellent institutional capacity including disciplined and trained human resource and air services.