July 18, 2017 02:00 AM NPT
The Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), the country’s oil monopoly, has traditionally been one of the most opaque public entities. During the formation of every government, there is a mad scramble for control of the Ministry of Supplies which oversees the NOC. Those at the helm of the corporation, who often work in cahoots with their political overlords, can easily pocket a few billion rupees a year in the form of various ‘commissions’. At the time of the blockade, the corporation management created hoopla when it decided to award a contract to supply petroleum products to Nepali markets to Birat Oil, a private company. The NOC had also agreed to give Birat Rs 200 million so that it could open a line of credit (LOC) for fuel import from India. There was no legal basis for this kind of cash handout. But as a result of the nearly five-month-long border blockade, the government did decide to build oil storage facilities in each of the seven federal provinces, to hold enough fuel to last at least a couple of months in the event of another blockade.
It was a timely decision, and in keeping with our national interest. Yet, it now transpires that the NOC management, and possibly those higher up the decision ladder, has pocketed hundreds of millions of rupees while procuring land for these storage facilities. For instance in Bhairahawa of Province 5, the corporation paid 1.3 million for a kattha of land, while the going rate in that locality was between Rs 250,000 and Rs 600,000. This way, the NOC paid around Rs 150 million in excess. When Republica talked to locals who had sold their lands, it emerged that most of them had gotten Rs 500,000 a kattha from land agents, who in turn booked it as Rs 900,000 a kattha. The locals were made to sign consent letters that clearly stated that the price of land was Rs 900,000 a kattha. When they inquired about the discrepancy, they were told to keep their mouths shut. Pretty much the same thing happened in Jhapa (Province 1), Sarlahi (Province 2) and Chitwan (Province 3).
The total amount of profiteering in all these deals comes to around Rs 670 million. When Republica tried, and repeatedly, to contact NOC Managing Director Gopal Bahadur Khadka for clarification, he was unavailable. This kind of irresponsibility and dereliction of duty was perhaps to be expected of someone who, when questioned about the illegal outlay of money to Birat Oil in November 2015, had admitted that although “the process of awarding the contract was unlawful, we will continue to import fuel in this manner”. It isn’t hard to surmise from this that the NOC management has a lot to hide and even feels confident that should their misdeeds be exposed, their political masters will ensure a quick cover-up. Our ruling parties and top bureaucrats are, once again, showing that they are a law unto themselves. And, once again, the onus is on the judiciary to prove that there is a smidgen of rule of law in this otherwise lawless land.