Rabi Lamichhane’s awarding of ID deal under dual probeThe then home minister had pressed ahead with the process despite officials expressing serious doubts.
The government on Tuesday canceled a contract it had awarded to a private foreign firm for verifying personal and biological details of citizens for the National Identity Card and launched multiple investigations into the matter. The contract had been issued by the then Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane.
Lamichhane authenticated the procedure to award the contract to a private company when the government itself was taking initiatives for developing such a verification mechanism.
Binod Singh, who was (and still is) home secretary when Lamichhane awarded the contract, told the Post on Wednesday that he was also not convinced with the working procedure based on which the contract was awarded. The tender specifications were prepared by officials from the Department of National Identity and Civil Registration.
Besides terminating the contract, the government also decided to seize the security deposit of the firm and probe the matter by forming a three-member panel, according to a senior official at the prime minister’s office.
Arjun Prasad Pokhrel, secretary at prime minister’s office, has been assigned the leader of the panel, which also includes Jitendra Basnet, a joint secretary at the home ministry and Indira Dahal of the law ministry.
Spokesman of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), Bhola Dahal, said the commission has also received a complaint and they are looking into it.
“Our investigation has just started,” a CIAA official said, adding that the anti-graft body will closely study the disputed working procedure and decide how the investigation should move forward.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal also appears to have taken the matter seriously.
“The way the contract was awarded has raised some serious concerns. So I have taken a bold decision to investigate a possible case of corruption,” Dahal said at an election rally in Tanahun on Wednesday.
“Yesterday, the Cabinet decided to look into what is a very serious matter. Some people talk a lot about good governance, but the government is actually working to ensure good governance,” Dahal said.
Home Secretary Singh said there were lapses in the contract-awarding process. “Also, we did not read the working procedure in detail and failed to consult the Ministry of Finance.”
The home ministry, without competitive bidding and in violation of the public procurement law, had selected Advantage International for the development of a mechanism to verify citizens’ personal details recorded in the national identity card.
The government plans to implement a national identity card verification system in all its offices. This way, citizens seeking government services can have their details verified easily and get hassle-free services.
“Some officials had raised concerns over the working procedure when it was being drafted. We were trying to develop our own model for verifying identification documents as citizens’ details are a sensitive matter. But some of our friends suggested that this kind of tender does not fall under the ambit of the Public Procurement Act, and the tender can be awarded to the company that is already listed in the office of National Identity and Civil Registration,” said Singh.
“Then seven days were given to listed bidders and Advantage International got the contract.”
Lamichanne served just 32 days in the ministry. He narrowed down the competition by introducing a procedure against the Public Procurement Act. Soon afterward, the Ministry of Home Affairs studied the tender process and proposed to the Council of Ministers to cancel the procedure and the contract.
“We had already concluded that this decision had some serious flaws, but in the meantime Lamichanne quit the ministry,” said Singh. “After a new home minister came in, we finally decided to scrap the contract.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha said the contract was canceled as it had been issued in violation of prevailing laws. He said neither the Ministry of Finance nor the Ministry of Law had given their consent to the working procedure.
“The Public Procurement Act does not permit anyone to issue a contract within seven days of tender notice. This contract deals with financial matters, but they did not seek approval of the Ministry of Finance. They also failed to get a mandatory approval from the Ministry of Law. As the entire process is flawed, it has been annulled,” Shrestha told the Post.
The Public Procurement Act stipulates that for an international tender, bidders must be granted a minimum of 45 days, whereas for a national tender, a minimum of 30 days is required, but Lamichhane had reduced the deadline to seven days.
“The contract was awarded without analyzing how the company in question would protect citizens’ private information and national security,” Shrestha said.
Meanwhile, a joint secretary at the home ministry said there was no urgency to award the tender by bypassing the procurement law.
Advantage International Pvt Ltd got the contract on January 12, a day before the Supreme Court ordered Lamichhane’s ouster from all public posts on the ground of his invalid citizenship certificate.
Advantage International was also awarded five other projects of the Department of the National Identity Card and Civil Registration. Why the firm got those five projects in 2022 remains unknown.
We have admitted to serious lapses in awarding the tender to the Advantage International, said Singh, and we were in a process of scrapping the tender.
“There was pressure from different sides to approve the working procedure and award the tender to Advantage International. Coincidentally, it was approved a day before Lammichanne’s departure,” Singh said.