Nepal’s jails as a business opportunity? Not as far-fetched as it sounds

Now that hydropower, education, health and tourism sectors have started  attracting a lot of attention and capital, this may be a good time to start looking around for new areas for investment in Nepal.

Our jails have many problems, and most of them are systemic – the reason prisons are poorly-managed and under-funded are the same as for many other areas. There are a lot more people who have to be in them, or will be going in. The number of people convicted by the courts but who are still at large run in the tens of thousands.

Which means that if the government was more efficient about convicting and apprehending criminals, there would be severe over-crowding in Nepal’s jails. However, this is also a country where the politicians who fight for public office often boast about the number of years they have spent behind bars. Incarceration is a badge of honour.

Unlike in Singapore, where you cannot be employed if you were convicted, here you can rise to the highest offices of the land. Political incarceration, and innocent people framed with trumped-up charges have also given jail terms an aura of respectability. In fact, like colleges, jails can have fancy names so that detainees can brag about having served time there in their CVs.

For Nepal to develop and come out of poverty, a lot of individuals will have to be put behind bars. As Parliament at the centre and the federal provinces pass more and more laws, jails could actually be a good business – if not good for business.

Nepal may not be ready for privatised jails, but seriously, if we have done that with health and education there is technically no reason why jails cannot be run like hotels. The government can pay them occupancy rates and provide incentives for owners to put in systems so convicts turn themselves in.

Public and even private law enforcement officers can then do a better job of arresting and convicting criminals, thieves, bribe takers and givers, poachers, food adulterators, rapists, sex offenders, drug dealers and many more.

That will allow the rest of Nepal to focus on the economic development agenda. Jails would spawn a whole downstream economy of guards, cooks, teachers, and tailors. Jails could have an industrial area where embossed number plates are made, and they could be economic hubs and pay VAT like everyone else.

There could be a rate for occupied cells, a premium rate if the convicts wanted to have extra facilities and the government could even pay for the cells that remain empty as a form of subsidy.

Free of criminal elements, the rest of the country could then concentrate on building infrastructure, agriculture and industrial facilities with minimum disturbance and disruptions. If people still break the law, they would just increase the prison occupancy rates. It is a win-win.

In the long-term, if Nepal develops like The Netherlands, we know these facilities will all become redundant, and it will be good to convert them back into hotels. One may also want to consult the politicians who have been in prison as they may have ideas on how to improve the existing prison facilities.

‘If you do not want to do time, do not commit the crime’ could be a catchy slogan for a reformed prison sector that actually contributes to the economy instead of becoming a burden and a symbol of societal failure.

Donors, human rights groups, anti-corruption campaigners, those currently working to improve jails and prevent the spread of prison diseases should welcome this new investment opportunity. It is good to give local investors a headstart before foreigners show interest.

Development requires that good people have the enabling environment to work and excel. This means bad people have to be locked up and given a chance to become good citizens. Jails are an integral part of modern society and Nepal’s jails are in a pathetic state. Why not start making our prison system a new investment opportunity.

Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc.