Nepali Times

Bhattarai’s new party

Sunday, June 12th, 2016
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Bhattarai waves to his supporters at the launch of his new party in Kathmandu on Sunday.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Photo: Gopen Rai

Ex-Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai announced his new political party – Naya Shakti Nepal — in Kathmandu on Sunday.

Bhattarai, also a former Prime Minister, quit the Maoists – a party that he formed two decades ago and nurtured alongside Pushpa Kamal Dahal – last year, just after the promulgation of the new constitution. Known as a Maoist ideologue during the war, Bhattarai now claims he is no longer a communist, and that his party’s top agenda is to transform the country’s economy.

After the announcement, Bhattarai administered the oath to all the party leaders and members in Dasarath Stadium, which was filled with thousands of supporters. He said he formed this party to turn Nepal into a developed country.

Bhattarai is often credited for persuading the Maoist Chair Dahal to end the war, join hands with parliamentary parties against the monarchy and participate in multiparty democracy. He won more popularity as a Finance Minister in the first Maoist government.

But as Prime Minister, Bhattarai failed to live up to the Nepali people’s aspirations. His premiership was marred by controversy over his government’s recommendation that a presidential pardon be granted to Maoist leader Balkrishna Dhungel, who had been accused of murder.

According to Bhattarai, his new party will maintain financial transparency, but it has already been criticised for printing full cover-page advertisements on all the broadsheet dailies on Sunday without revealing the source of income for the blitz on publicity.

DPM Thapa in Delhi

Friday, June 10th, 2016
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DPM Thapa talks to media before flying to Delhi on Friday. Photo: RSS

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Thapa reached New Delhi on Friday, aiming to help normalise Nepal-India relations.

This is the fourth time that Thapa has embarked on an official visit to New Delhi after the promulgation last year of Nepal’s new constitution – which India merely took ‘note of’ rather than welcoming.

Thapa, accompanied by senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), will participate in South Asian University’s convocation ceremony on Saturday. Later in the day, he is scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting with India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Speaking with journalists in Kathmandu before leaving for New Delhi, Thapa said: “The objective of my two-day India visit is to strengthen the ties between the two countries.”

After India cut off the supply of fuel and essential commodities to Nepal last year by imposing a blockade at the border, Thapa had visited New Delhi and held talks with top Indian leaders. It was he who, on behalf of Prime Minister KP Oli, floated a three-point proposal in New Delhi to resolve the Madhes crisis.

After the blockade was lifted early this year, he accompanied PM Oli to New Delhi once again. At a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Oli claimed that the “misunderstanding between the two countries has been cleared”.

But Kathmandu-Delhi animosity has once again spilled over after the withdrawal of Nepal’s ambassador to India Deep Kumar Upadhyay and the abrupt cancellation of President Bidya Bhandari’s India visit. Meanwhile, Madhesi parties, apparently backed by India, are threatening to intensify their protests, and talks between the government and the agitating forces have stalled.

On the other hand, Nepal’s proximity with China has increased, with reports of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s possible visit to Nepal on 16 October. Top Chinese leaders and authorities are visiting Kathmandu in quick succession in what is being seen as preparations for Xi’s Nepal visit. Vice President Nanda Kishor Pun also embarked on a week-long official visit to Beijing on Friday.


Making their presence felt

Thursday, June 9th, 2016
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Commuters travel by a tractor during Thursday’s shutdown in Kathmandu. Photo: RSS

A shutdown across the country on Thursday organised by a radical breakaway faction of the Maoists today brought cities and highways across Nepal to a halt. A taxi was torched and two Sajha Yatayat buses were vandalised in Kathmandu.

It is not clear why the Netra Bikram Chanda-led CPN Maoist called the strike. When asked to explain the reason for Thursday’s shutdown, Santosh Budha of the Maoists citied corruption, foreign intervention in Nepal’s internal affairs and the delay in the post-earthquake reconstruction.

“We also want to show our power. We want to make people aware of our political agenda,” Budha added.

The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) says the country incurs an estimated loss of Rs 2 billion every day that the country is forced to shut down. But Budha said: “What options do we have other than this to make our presence felt?”

Budha also blamed the media for forcing his party to enforce a general strike. “The media never gives attention to us when we carry out peaceful protests,” he said. “We held a motorcycle rally in Kathmandu yesterday, the media did not cover it. But when our cadre torched a taxi today morning, it was reported by every single media outlet.”

The CPN Maoist is one of the breakaway factions of the Maoist party that waged a decade-long war against the state.

Although other breakaway groups have recently unified with Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s UCPN (M) to form the CPN Maoist (Centre), the Chand faction is threatening to wage another war. In less than one-and-a-half -year after its establishment, the Chand faction has enforced general strikes four times.

The CPN Maoist had first called the strike to protest the Lipulek agreement between India and China without Nepal’s involvement. It then called the strike to protest the new constitution. The third time it called the strike was against the Indian blockade.


Life is smiling

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016
Ambar Gurung

Amber Gurung at a concert in Nepalganj in 2009. Photo: nepa~laya

At a Paleti concert in Nepalganj in 2009, Amber Gurung already looked frail, his voice fraying at the edges. At 73 then, he needed help to walk, but there was still a distinct twinkle in his eyes. I remember he ended the concert with Naulakha Tara and it roused the audience into singing along for the famous line: ‘… niyali hera hamilai bhijeko chhaina parela’ (“look closely at  us, we don’t have a dry eye”). Indeed, in that packed hall our eyes glistened with a strange mixture of sadness and pride.

Amber Gurung was brought to Nepal from Darjeeling in 1969 under King Mahendra’s campaign to support a vision of Nepali nationhood that transcended the boundaries of Nepal. Till the end — in a hospital bed in Kathmandu on Tuesday morning — Amber Gurung’s heart still beat with the same deep love for the Nepali nation that stirred us once with Naulakha Tara, and with the anthem of the new republic, Sauyaun Thunga.


Photo: Bikas Rauniyar/Nepal Picture Library

The haunting words take us all back to an era of innocent national pride, of diasporic longing for the motherland. A time when life was simpler, and violence and discord had not torn apart the fabric of the country.

In Nepalganj that night seven years ago, tears welled up when he spoke from the stage of youth and friends gone. He wiped his eyes with a handkerchief when young musicians broke into Shanti Thatal’s Samalera Rakha and other songs by Aruna Lama, the lyrics of which he had written 50 years prior to that.


Singer Amrit Gurung fixes a tie on his guru, Ambar Gurung, before a concert in Nepalganj in 2009. PHOTO: KUNDA DIXIT

Earlier that day, Amber Gurung had visited the People After War photo exhibition held by nepa~laya in Nepalganj. Lingering near the photograph of a father being embraced by his daughter and son who had fought on opposite sides during the war, he said, “This was a war between siblings,” and expressed the hope that he would one day work on a song dedicated to the reconciliation between Nepalis. But he had already done it: our new national anthem, in which he adorned Byakul Maila’s lyrics with a folksy beat and a melody that exuded a strong sense of Nepali-ness.

Amber Gurung’s Ma Amber Hun and Ukali Lagda Pasina Puchhne…are about longing, forbidden and unrequited love. His voice broke when he sang them, and he stopped to let his student, Aavas, sing the remaining stanzas.

As Aavas sang Jasai kesh timile phukayau, Amber Gurung closed his eyes and smiled at words written long ago — about the simple sight of a woman’s hair flying in the breeze — that had made him marvel at the joy of life: ’Jindagi hera muskurayo …’ (“Life is smiling”).

Kunda Dixit

A parallel government

Monday, June 6th, 2016

nt6641From the Nepali Press

Govinda KC in Kantipur, 3 June

Having overcome many hurdles in our long drawn-out crusade to rid Nepal’s health sector of its ills, we are now confronting a new reality: the existence of a parallel government run by the corrupt head of a constitutional body.

The rise of Lokman Singh Karki, the Chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) is the direct result of our political failure. But it is not acceptable to people living in any country that claims to have the rule of law.

Our demand for quality medical education, a just distribution of health facilities around the country, and access to affordable and accessible medical services remains unaddressed.

The CIAA should have stood by us in our campaign to bring about positive changes in Nepal’s medical sector, but has instead worked against the national interest. Its failure to uphold the rule of law will worsen the state of impunity, endangering transparency and accountability. What if the head of such a constitutional body abuses his power to get to power? What if he allows his family members and relatives to abuse the power he wields?

This is what is happening: the CIAA is actively overstepping its jurisdiction. It protects the corrupt. The innocent are being mentally and physically harassed. A constitutional body responsible for promoting transparency and accountability is itself opaque and abets impunity.

The CIAA boss is abusing his power to help medical colleges run by members of his family to obtain university affiliations and add more student seats. Officials who refuse to kowtow have been threatened, and even forced to resign. Those who abide by the rules are afraid of the CIAA, but not those who are themselves abusing their authority.

A medical college run by a family member of the CIAA Chief has been allowed to enroll students even when most of its departments – which are necessary for quality education – are out of operation. Authorities at the Nepal Medical Council and Tribhuvan University do not want to face the wrath of the CIAA Chief by ordering the closure of this college. On the other hand, some officials at the Institute of Medicine (IoM), known for honesty, have been dragged to court by the CIAA for allowing another medical college to add more student seats.

Whether the CIAA’s arrest of the IoM officials is legal will be decided by the courts. But, by the time the verdict on this case is out, the damage will have been done. In the three years since Karki’s appointment as the CIAA Chief, the honest have been demoralised, and the crooked empowered.

In the last three stages of our civil disobedience, we had held the conduct of the CIAA Chief responsible for irregularities in Nepal’s medical education sector. We had even thought of demanding his resignation – but we did not because many of us argued that he is the head of a constitutional body, and it would be difficult to force him to resign.

But the CIAA Chief has now overstepped his bounds. He is not just forestalling new reforms in the medical sector, but is also trying to subvert past achievements. He is passive where his intervention is needed, and he is overstepping his jurisdiction where his role is not needed.

Unless we rid the CIAA of its prejudices, and selective and arbitrary actions, we cannot rid the medical sector of its ills.

Spreading wings wider

Monday, June 6th, 2016
Nepal Airlines

Photo: Vijay Lama

There is a mood of cautious optimism at Nepal Airlines after Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel announced in his budget speech on 28 May that the government is setting aside the money required for the purchase of two new wide-body aircraft.

If the state-owned airline goes ahead with the planned acquisition, possibly of Airbus 330-200 jets, the $460 million deal would be the largest-ever in Nepal’s aviation history. The long-range version of the plane is capable of flying to Europe and Japan non-stop from Kathmandu with up to 250 passengers.

“We need the larger planes to remain competitive on our Asian routes, to restart direct flights to Europe, and to meet the growing volume of Nepalis and tourists flying to and from Kathmandu,” Nepal Airlines CEO Sugat Kansakar told us this week.

While the long-term prospects for Nepal Airlines look good, it needs to urgently upgrade a bloated management, streamline international operations, and decide on its domestic fleet. The airline also faces heavy criticism for its poor ground-handling services at Kathmandu airport, especially slow baggage delivery.

Airbus 330 and 320

Artist’s rendition of an A330 (left) and A320.                                                                Credit: Aircraft Livery Nepal

But the airlines has seen a turnaround since adding two Airbus 320s to its fleet. Punctuality and reliability of flights improved and passenger volume increased by 30 per cent this year.  However, Nepal’s own national airline is still number 5 after Qatar Airways, Jet Airways, Air Arabia and Fly Dubai in terms of passengers flown.

Says Capt Srawan Rijal who flies the airline’s new Airbus, “After one year of successful operation of 320s we now have the experience to upgrade to widebodies.”

The biggest challenge now is a severe shortage of pilots. Twice in the past month, while both Airbus 320s sat on the tarmac at Kathmandu Airport, fully-booked flights to Hong Kong and Bangkok were scrubbed because the crew had reached maximum flying hours per week.

Half of the Boeing 757 pilots who had gone to Toulouse for conversion training to 320s failed simulator tests, so the airline has only 9 captains and 13 co-pilots for 320s even though it needs at least 30 pilots. Airbus is providing two instructors for three months to clear remaining pilots, but the shortage will remain if there is crew layover on Doha and Kuala Lumpur routes.

The other quick way to induct new crew would be to entice with salaries and perks Nepali pilots flying 320s abroad. Senior captains in Nepal Airlines are paid only $1,500 per month plus allowances, whereas pilots with similar hours can earn more than $16,000 a month in an international airline.

“The only reason I stay with Nepal Airlines is because I see great growth potential, and because there is nothing like flying your country’s flag,” says Capt Vijay Lama who heads international operations at Nepal Airlines.

Nepal Airlines can have a captive market of 4 million Nepalis now working in Malaysia, the Gulf, Korea and Japan if it can increase capacity. Inducting 330s would also make the state airline able to compete with carriers that use widebodies on lucrative high-volume routes like Bangkok, Hong Kong and Doha, and restart services to Narita and Gatwick.

The airline management wants to sell off one of its two ageing 757s even though it has very low resale value. The planes were bought in 1987 and consume 30 per cent more fuel per passenger mile than the 320s, and at present both Boeings are grounded for maintenance.

“Having Boeings and Airbuses in the same company almost makes it look like we are running two airlines, the 757s are just too old and expensive to fly,” says Kansakar.

One proposal is to use the remaining 757, which is a Combi model with a forward hatch, for air cargo service since operating costs would be much lower than for passenger flights. Nepal Airlines has only six per cent market share of the Rs100 billion air cargo market, and keeping one 757 would also mean that senior Boeing captains would not lose their jobs.

Kunda Dixit


Loan deal on Pokhara airport

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

pokharaThe Ministry of Finance (MoF) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) on Sunday signed a loan agreement to fund the construction of the Pokhara International Airport.

As per the contract, the MoF will provide the loan to the CAAN at an annual interest rate of five per cent. The Rs 21 billion project is scheduled for completion by 2020.

The MoF’s loan is in fact being underwritten by China. During Prime Minister KP Oli’s visit to Beijing in March, the Nepal government and the Export-Import Bank of China signed a $ 215.96 million (approximately Rs 21 billion) financing deal.

A quarter of the Chinese credit is interest-free, but Nepal must pay two per cent interest each year for the remaining 75 per cent of the borrowed funds.

After returning from China, PM Oli laid the foundation stone for the Pokhara airport in April. In his budget speech last week, Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel announced that his ministry had allocated Rs five billion to begin the Pokhara airport construction, with the aim of it being ready within the next four years.

However, a dispute over the interest rate of the sub-loan by the MoF to the CAAN had been delaying the commencement of the project. The inking of the loan agreement on Sunday has now paved the way for the work to be kick-started.

Nepal has only one international airport, but is building three more — including the one in Pokhara — to attract more tourists. The first detailed survey to build such an airport in Pokhara had been conducted as far back as 1970, but no significant progress was made in the last four decades.