Amid the outbreakThe government is preparing to circumvent procurement laws, roping in the Army in the process.
The Nepal Communist Party was elected to bring back transparency and political stability. Once in power, the KP Oli administration espoused the platforms of transparency, accountability and meritocracy to usher in a changed Nepal. But ever since this government took over, while these highly-vaunted ideals still appear in its lexicon, in practice, they seem to have vanished entirely.
In another slap in the face of democracy itself, the federal government is now preparing to circumvent procurement laws and scrutiny, and is considering assigning the task of purchasing medical equipment related to fighting Covid-19 through the Nepal Army. This decision has to be condemned for many reasons. For one, it seems that this decision comes on the heels of the controversy surrounding the corruption linked to the purchase of said equipment through a private Nepali company as a means to deflect attention. For another, this adds to the Army’s creeping into further roles in the state—roles that do not belong to the national defence agency.
This is not the first time that a government’s decision to rely on the Army has come into question. In fact, the Nepal Army has a history of taking actions that undermine the democratic process and further strengthen itself. From the beginning of the 19th century the Army has moved ever closer to encroaching land in Kathmandu, including Tundikhel, as a means to increase institutional power and bring it closer to the heart of the capital. During the decade-long civil conflict, it further increased its hold on the country. Then, in 2002, then king Gyanendra relied heavily on the Army to throw democracy in the gutter with a coup.
After democracy was restored in 2006, the Army should have moved back into an idle state. Traditionally, the role of an Army is to ensure national security, meaning it should hold less power and less responsibilities during times of peace. However, the Army has reinvented itself into a pseudo-commercial institution that has embarrassingly run, at one point, a banquet hall for rent. Recently, it has also become a commercial contractor, running the Kathmandu-Tarai expressway project for the government. It seems the Army’s penchant for staying relevant knows no bounds. But this is dangerous too.
Procurement laws are there for a reason—to allow public oversight on the purchases made using public funds. By no means are Nepal’s procurement laws perfect. In fact, the Post has in many editorials voiced the need for a revamping of the procurement laws. Yet, in transferring the order to purchase the necessary medical equipment through the Nepal Army, public oversight is lost. This is because the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, the state’s apex, seemingly independent watchdog, does not have a mandate to investigate purchases made by the Army.
In shifting the shopping assignment to the Army, the health minister and the defense minister seem to have schemed up a perfect way for corruption in purchases to continue, with fewer instruments left to question the procurement itself. This especially rings true because the government-to-government purchase, if deemed as efficient and absolutely necessary, could have been conducted through any state agency that could be scrutinised by the CIAA. Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ishwor Pokhrel, for example, could have easily asked for the purchase to be assigned to the High-Level Committee on Prevention and Control of Covid-19, which he also heads and which should be up to the task of identifying the purchasing needs that would effectively help stem the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
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