The wide-body aircraft purchase deal of Nepal Airlines Corporation has gripped the country especially after a probe by the Public Accounts Committee revealed the names of high-ranking authorities including Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari. Moreover, the House panel on Monday endorsed the probe report of its sub-committee recommending government to suspend tourism secretary and NAC’s managing director. Against this backdrop, Sujan Dhungana of The Himalayan Times spoke with Minendra Rijal, a PAC member, to get further details of the scam. Excerpts:
The PAC on Monday endorsed the probe report on wide-body aircraft purchase deal recommending action against reputed political leaders and high-level bureaucrats. What is your analysis of the entire deal?
Actually, I was the one who first raised the issue regarding possible anomalies in the wide-body aircraft purchase deal. I raised the agenda in a PAC meeting after the central committee meeting of Nepali Congress felt the need to carry out a thorough investigation into the aircraft purchase deal carried out by NAC as we had clear indications there were irregularities in the procurement process. Following this, the PAC summoned related officials in its meeting, including the tourism minister to get a detailed account of the aircraft purchase deal. However, the PAC decided to carry out a probe on its own after related officials in the case could not furnish proper clarifications to the committee. Consequently, PAC formed a sub-committee to probe the issue. The sub-committee conducted an in-depth investigation into the issue and came up with various recommendations. I was pretty happy with the initial report of the sub-committee and its recommendations. The report indicated the nature of irregularities entertained during the procurement process of the two Airbus A330-200 wide-body aircraft for NAC and recommended action against the guilty. However, parliamentary committees in Nepal have low resources and capacity to carry out an extensive probe. The PAC on Monday endorsed the sub-committee’s report identifying different anomalies in the aircraft purchase deal and people who were involved in this case. Now, I expect Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority to carry out an extensive investigation into this case based on the PAC probe report and take action against all those who are found to be guilty.
The PAC probe has concluded that there was corruption worth Rs 4.34 billion in the procurement process making it one of the biggest corruption cases so far in the country. However, PAC lawmakers seemed to be divided on the suggestions of the probereport, especially the recommendation to act against different bureaucrats and political figures. Why was it so?
Once we are part of any parliamentary committee we have to be aware that we have to be unbiased regarding anything. Thus being divided on any issue, especially on issues related to corruption and other anomalies is bad. We need to forget all our political relations and agendas in the parliamentary committee meetings and unite to fight against all shortcomings, irregularities and lapses taking place in any sector and especially those pointed out by the Office of the Auditor General. However, the probe committee’s report was passed through consensus on Monday though lawmakers had reservations with the recommendations of the report initially. I believe that the probe report will provide solid ground for the anti-graft body to carry out further investigation on the wide-body procurement issue.
Though PAC has identified irregularities in the wide-body aircraft deal and recommended action against those who have been found guilty, the government has begun its own probe into this issue by forming a high-level investigation committee. What is your take on this?
The government should not have done that. The government does not have any authority to start a probe into the issue that the parliamentary committee is dealing with. Moreover, formation of the probe committee by the government is against the spirit of the Constitution and undermines independence of CIAA. Similar practice was done during former king Gyanendra Shah’s regime when a Royal Commission was formed undermining CIAA. I believe that the government will not repeat such a mistake and rectify the wrong it has done by forming the probe committee. Similarly, I am quite hopeful that the former justice who has been recommended for the committee will not join the committee as the main intention of forming such a committee is to undermine the authority of CIAA that has the constitutionally mandated authority to look into cases related to the abuse of authority.
The recent scenario also reflects a clash between judiciary, legislature and executive on the wide-body aircraft issue. Is it true?
PAC has not undermined the judiciary on the wide-body aircraft issue. The Supreme Court’s verdict on the wide-body aircraft purchase is entirely a different context. PAC has limited its investigation to the procurement part of the wide-body aircraft. However, the government’s decision to form a separate probe committee undermines the supremacy of CIAA and even the Parliament. As the government is created from the Parliament, the government has to be accountable towards it.
Questions are also being raised on the expertise of PAC in carrying out an intensive probe into highly technical cases like this. How true is this?
I completely agree with you. The capacity of House committees in Nepal is limited and not enough attention has been given to that. There has to be enough budget allocation and expertise for such committees and due priority has to be given to strengthen the capacity of House panels. Moreover, PAC is supposed to be the most important committee in the Parliament and this is why the opposition party gets to lead this committee across the world. Thus, we need to strengthen our capacity to deal with various issues.
Do you believe that high-ranking officials named in the report will be penalised?
We have a new chief commissioner at CIAA and based on what I know about him and CIAA’s expertise, I expect the anti-graft body to carry out an in-depth probe into the aircraft purchase issue and punish the guilty accordingly. However, if the government or its probe committee tries to hinder the probe of the CIAA, this will not be taken for granted.
Lastly, you were barred from making a comment at the PAC meeting prior to endorsing the probe report. What do you have to say on this?
It would have been good if the chairman had given me the opportunity to speak at the end. As I was refused the opportunity, I am not too happy about it. However, not giving me the opportunity to express myself at the committee meeting will not bar me from speaking about any problems that I see. I only tried to establish a point that when taking decisions, especially by the parliamentary committees, everyone should be treated equally and the bigwigs should not be given any preference. The CIAA has the constitutionally mandated jurisdiction to carry out an independent probe and recommend action against anyone. As CIAA is an independent body, I believe that its probe will bring out the names of all those people who were involved in financial irregularities while purchasing the aircraft.
A version of this article appears in print on January 08, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.