Ncell sale row: Too many panels may complicate probeAs two parliamentary committees and a government panel look into the deal, yet another committee shows interest.
There are now a handful of entities probing the Ncell sale case.
The government on Thursday formed a five-member high-level committee to investigate the buyout of Ncell, a mobile service provider. A Cabinet meeting constituted the panel under former auditor general Tanka Mani Sharma. It has been given 30 days to study the matter and submit its report.
The government appointed the panel a day after the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Representatives directed it to halt the Malaysian company Axiata’s efforts to sell its shares in the Nepal-based Ncell until a detailed investigation into the matter is completed. It has decided to summon Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and other relevant officials for clarification.
The Finance Committee of the House has also started a study on the buyout row. Its meeting on Wednesday decided to summon the Ncell chief executive officer and officials from the Nepal Telecommunications Authority for their clarification on the deal.
On December 1, Axiata announced that it had entered into an unconditional sale and purchase agreement (SPA) with Spectrlite UK Limited to sell Reynolds Holding Limited, which owns approximately 80 percent equity stake in the Nepal-based Ncell Axiata Limited.
Spectrlite UK, registered in the United Kingdom in September this year, is owned by Satish Lal Acharya, a person of Nepali origin currently based in Singapore. Sunivera Capital Venture, owned by his wife Bhavana Singh Shrestha, has another 20 percent stake in Ncell.
While two parliamentary committees are already at work and the government has formed a separate panel to look into the matter, the Education, Health and Information Technology Committee of the House of Representatives can also investigate the sale of shares.
Nirmala Devi Lamichhane Wasti, secretary of the committee, said some lawmakers from the committee have demanded that they too study the dealing of share sales in Ncell.
“Most members of our committee are on a field visit in Jajarkot and Rukum to take stock of the post-earthquake situation. We will decide on the deal once they return,” Wasti told the Post.
On several instances in the past, two or more House panels have intervened in the same case of public concern. The conclusions of their studies are not uniform and often contradictory.
In early 2017, there was a serious dispute on whether Ncell should get the licence to start 4G internet. The Public Accounts Committee had directed the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Nepal Telecommunications Authority not to allow the telecom company to introduce 4G and other services until it clears its capital gains tax (CGT).
The Development Committee and the Finance Committee of the House too intervened in the matter. While the Finance Committee didn’t have a clear position, the Development Committee cleared the way for the licence, contrary to the directives from the Public Accounts Committee.
A meeting of the Development Committee on April 16, 2017 had directed the government not to bar Ncell from rolling out 4G service, stating that it is against the right of consumers to get to use the new technology.
Based on this directive, Nepal Telecommunications Authority cleared the way for Ncell to extend its internet service. As the telecommunication authority’s decision to allow Ncell to roll out the service was based on a House committee’s directives, other committees and agencies couldn’t stop it.
Those who have been closely following parliamentary proceedings say such trends are common. Som Bahadur Thapa, a former secretary at the Parliament Secretariat who also spent years serving as the secretary at the Public Accounts Committee, said as the committee is led by the opposition, the government uses other committees, generally led by ruling party members, to make the decisions it desires.
“I see a similar possibility this time. When there are separate decisions from different parliamentary committees, the implementing agency follows the one that best suits its interest,” Thapa told the Post.
Thapa said it is clear prima facie that the share deal is fishy. How they handle the delicate matter will be a real test of the parliamentary committees, he said.
Officials say it is natural for two or more committees to investigate a single cross-cutting case. Having envisioned such a situation, the parliamentary regulation says two or more parliamentary committees can jointly study a case. “There is no legal hurdle for two or more House committees to even issue a joint directive on an issue,” Ek Ram Giri, spokesperson for the Parliament Secretariat, told the Post. There has been a practice of a joint study in a cross-cutting issue.
Experts on parliamentary affairs say Speaker and deputy Speaker are ex-officio members of all committees and also have the responsibility to coordinate among them. They can take the initiative to bring the concerned parliamentary committees together, they say.
“Unearthing and recommending action against malpractice should be the focus of the government investigation panel, the parliamentary committees as well as the judiciary that are looking into the Ncell deal,” said Thapa.
While the government and parliamentary committees, which are also called mini parliaments, are already studying the matter, the judiciary, too, has come forward to intervene in the purchase and sale of the shares.
On Thursday, the Patan High Court issued an interlocutory interim order asking the authorities to halt the telecom company’s sale.
Responding to a writ petition by Gokul Bahadur Rokaya, a single bench of judge Purushottam Prasad Dhakal issued the order to defendants including the Office of the Company Registrar to stop the buyout.
The court has summoned both parties on December 11 for the next hearing to decide whether to give continuity to the order. The bench has asked the defendants to be present with necessary documents on the purchase deal.