The CIAA and PAC must launch thorough investigations into the security printing press scam that has cost the job of a minister
Minister for Communications and Information Technology Gokul Prasad Baskota was forced to step down on Thursday after a video tape, leaked to media outlets, proved his nefarious involvement in a commission bargain with a local agent of a Swiss firm that proposed to supply a security printing press in the country. Speaker of the House of Representatives Agni Sapkota announced that Baskota, a right hand man of Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, had put in his papers following the allegation. In the audio tape, the minister is heard bargaining for a commission of Rs 700 million or even more with the Swiss agent for the lucrative contract. Baskota is also heard using obscene language against the civil servants in the taped conversation with Bijaya Prakash Mishra, the local agent of the Swiss firm, KBA NotoSys, which had offered to provide the security printing press with a capacity of printing even currency notes at a cost of Euro 200 million, which is far lower than the price quoted by the German firm (Euro 300 million) and the French firm (Euro 295 million). Even before the scandal, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had been probing into the case, raising 11 questions with the cabinet and the minister as to why there was so much price variation among the three firms and why the Swiss firm was not included during negotiations.
The audio tape was leaked to the media Wednesday evening. It had, however, been handed over to the PM three days ago. But instead of taking prompt action against his trusted lieutenant, the PM, while addressing a function in Dhulikhel three days ago, had showered praise on him, saying he was “weightier than all other politicians put together”. Baskota is the first minister in Oli’s cabinet to be forced out of office on allegation of bargaining for a hefty commission from the foreign firm, well before the bidding process took place to this effect. Were it not for the free and vibrant media in the country, the case would have gone largely unnoticed by the public.
The audio tape was leaked to the media after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday decided to put the issue of purchasing the security printing press on hold. The government was considering purchasing the press from a French government-owned firm on G-to-G basis. Although Baskota has stepped down on “moral ground”, the issue should not come to an end here. The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority and PAC must launch thorough investigations into the scandal and unearth the kickbacks the other firms had offered to seal the deal. The PM, who has been accused of giving political patronage to the people of his close circle, like the ones in the Lalita Niwas land grab scam, should take prompt action against all, if he wants to improve the image of his government. His slogan of “zero tolerance against corruption” will translate into reality only when he himself stays away from it, and will not allow others to engage in it. He cannot end corruption in the government agencies unless he clears his own kitchen cabinet of all the mess that has degraded his image. Baskota is only the tip of the corruption iceberg. If the PM acts tough, the rest will correct itself.
HAM to be tested
After seeing many large infrastructure projects fall apart within years of their construction, the government is thinking of introducing a provision that will make the contractors accountable for maintaining them for a decade after completion. The contractor will be held responsible for such large-scale projects as hydropower, roads, airports and railways. To do so, the Ministry of Finance is to introduce the Hybrid Annuity Model (HAM), which is in vogue in many countries, including neighbouring India. Accordingly, the government will release only 70 per cent of the project cost to the contractor during the project phase and the remaining 30 per cent at the end of the repair period of 10 years with interest.
The proposed plan sounds fine because the contractor will have to chip in 30 per cent of the project cost, and this will develop a long-lasting bond between the two. HAM is to be tested on the 96-km Thankot-Mugling road expansion project, which will set the tone for applying HAM on other large infrastructure projects. The proposed HAM provision is likely to do away with shoddy construction and also contractors who cannot put any money of their own in the projects they undertake.
A version of this article appears in print on February 21, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.