Army’s foray into agriculture sector sparks debateThere should be a clear distinction between what a national defence force should and should not do, observers say.
Nepal Army has been in commercial business for a long.
Through its welfare fund and other wings, the national army is running a business complex, leasing out buildings and properties, and buying land and selling plots to ex-servicemen. It also runs a food catering business at its Bhadrakali headquarters and runs schools and medical institutions to educate doctors and nurses. Most importantly, the national defence force’s business ambition has been seen in its involvement in the country’s largest project, the first ever expressway project that will connect Kathmandu to the Tarai.
Over the years, the army has continued to diversify its interests.
At a time when the army’s business ventures have already drawn attention and raised questions about its role, it is now going to run a course in agriculture and open it to the general public to pursue BSc (Agriculture) from next year.
The army's other dream project of establishing a dedicated Defence University is set to go into construction soon.
Observers say that a clear line should be drawn between what a national defence force should and should not do and this new venture in the education sector does not bode well as the army has already ventured into a lot of businesses.
“It is not good for the army to venture into the education sector and open one stream of education after another,” said former defence minister Bhimshen Das Pradhan. “It is not good for the army to be involved in different sectors.”
Nepal Army has the strength of more than 90,000 of which some 30,000 are officers and technical personnel like doctors and engineers.
“This is happening largely because its huge manpower is sitting idle. If the army diversifies its ventures and businesses like this, then it cannot gain professionalism. Such a venture will definitely have business motives and will disorient Nepal Army from its core objectives,” said Pradhan. “I was not even amused when the army was awarded the tender for Kathmandu-Tarai Fast Track project.”
The government awarded the Rs213 billion project —a 72.5-kilometre expressway—in 2017 after efforts to build it through the Department of Roads ran into controversy.
Nepal Army has established a Vocational Agriculture and Husbandry Training Centre in Lamjung where it imparts training to retired and retiring Nepal Army personnel and has been awarding certificates to junior technical assistants (JTAs) for the last two years.
In the last two years, the centre has imparted training to 140 retired and retiring Nepal Army personnel, facilitated loans for them from its welfare fund to set up their own agriculture farms, according to the Nepal Army.
It is now planning to upgrade the training centre based in Lamjung, Bagalegaun to Nepal Army Institute of Agriculture Sciences and commence an undergraduate course from next year and will be open to the general public, Nepal Army spokesperson Brigadier General Shantosh Ballave Poudyal told the Post.
The army has spent over Rs 140 million to set up the centre spread over 400 ropani [20.34 hectares].
“The idea behind establishing the agriculture centre is to contribute to the nation through education and agriculture sectors. It also generates employment inside the country that helps retired army personnel to remain inside the country. We are planning to upgrade it and commence a higher-level course in the agriculture sector from next year,” said Poudyal.
Some former Nepal Army officials view the army’s educational venture positively saying it will do good for the nation but questions might arise.
“Nepal Army has a long history of imparting training to its outgoing personnel in different sectors and professions. They used to be two months long. Now, Nepal Army is doing business and building academic institutions like setting up Defence University and running MBBS and nursing courses. Though people might debate over these new initiatives, they are good ventures for the country,” former Nepal Army major general Binoj Basnyat said.
But not all former officers agree.
According to two former Nepal Army officials, earlier Nepal Army used to impart short training to its ready-to-retire personnel in areas like plumbing, catering, restaurants and others on a sporadic basis.
But this is the first of its kind venture, on such a scale in a field totally non-military, the official said. After its venture in the medical field, Nepal Army’s foray into the agriculture sector is debatable and questionable.
Both former officers the Post talked to have a common concern—whether the army is going to make profit out of it.
“How transparent will the institution be? How will it run and what will be the share to the general public? Will it allot a fair number of seats to students whose parents are not in the military? The most important issue is that the institution should not be motivated by profit because the army is not supposed to be involved in profit-making business,” a former army officer said on condition of anonymity.
Nepal Army is running an MBBS course in its own institution and as it needs supporting staff for its own hospital and MBBS students, the army also has begun the nursing course off late. A task force is working to set up a dedicated Defence University headed by former Nepal Army Lieutenant General Balananda Sharma.
The Army's plan to run and produce trained manpower in the agriculture sector has triggered a debate and raises questions because the army is involved in the development sector and disaster management besides having the central role in protecting the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
By using those small loopholes in the constitution, the army is working and venturing in various sectors so the Ministry of Defence should make a clear demarcation or legally binding provision in the Nepal Army Act stating what is allowed and what is not, said former defence secretary Bishnu Lamsal.
According to the constitution and its Article 267 (4), the government of Nepal may also mobilize the Nepal Army in other works including development, construction and disaster management, as provided for in the federal law.
But the Army Act has not been amended in line with the provision of the constitution.
“This kind of debate should be ended permanently because in several countries, armies are doing business and venturing in several enterprises so it has become debatable,” said Lamsal, “The Ministry of Defence should speak in this matter and should make a clear demarcation specifying what the army can do what it can’t as per the constitution.”
“We have 60,000 plus active Nepal Army personnel which is a big working force. They work, they invest and they have ventured in various sectors because there is motivation and there is incentive. They have good funds for welfare. So the army may seek more sectors to work but should we allow them or not? This is the biggest question so it should be legally settled by the Ministry of Defence,” said Lamsal.