Ishwar Pokharel is Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence in the present government led by Prime Minister Oli of the Nepal Communist Party. The government is completing its two years in office on February 15, 2020. DPM Pokharel, who is also the chief of the department of school of the NCP, is an influential leader and one of the members of a nine-member Party Secretariat.
DPM Pokharel talked on various issue including political, defence and overall performance of the government at a weekly Gorkhapatra Sambad (Gorkhapatra Dialogue) on Sunday. Excerpts:
How do you review government’s performance since it came to power in mid-February last year?
The government formed under the leadership of KP Sharma Oli is not only the change of the government but of the whole system. The country has made a systemic shift.
The people’s movement of 2005/6 politically declared this change and the country was made Federal Democratic Republic. After almost a decade this change was constitutionally declared. Following the election in 2018, the new government was formed. I asked all not to see this change with conventional mentality.
To implement the political and constitutional changes, we need special laws, policies and required mechanism. Without this, the political and constitutional change of the system cannot take stable root. Therefore, the government is now focused on formulating special laws, policies and required mechanism. We are now in contradictions because we have new system but have old laws and mechanism. So, we are working to introduce important laws, polices and crucial mechanisms to meet the spirit of the changed system.
As a Deputy Prime Minister, you are also leading the Defence Ministry. What do you say about the Nepali Army’s investment and involvement in commercial looking business?
An established fact about the Nepali Army (NA) is that it is the ultimate national force of the country. It was involved in national unification, and it has been safeguarding sovereignty and freedom of the country.
Nepali Army is very much linked to the reality of Nepal’s development phase. Nepali Army is such an institution that functions under the direction of country’s established and legal political leadership that is chosen by the people through the election. And this has always remained an unchanging, apolitical character of Nepali Army.
Nepali Amy has its role in making Nepal’s foreign relations stronger. Since, 1956, when it started contributing its peace keepers in the United Nations, the Nepali Army has been participating directly or indirectly in bolstering Nepal’s foreign relations. Nepali Army’s UN Peacekeepers force is considered as the most trusted force and most liked force among other UN peacekeeping forces in the world.
We cannot forget the role played by Nepali Army in combating any type of natural disaster in the country.
Nepali Army is contributing to the nation by participating in the national infrastructure development projects and they are doing so as per the provision of the Constitution. The NA is participating in the development projects approved and mandated by the government.
I have been repeatedly telling the NA’s authority to move and act accordingly to the changed and updated political context. And those who don’t keep themselves update will automatically be outdated. And in the context of Nepali Army, they don’t have this excuse.
Whatever the NA is doing at present, is all according to constitutional provisions, laws and policies I can say that the NA has not done anything that violates the Constitution and legal provisions.
NA has its Welfare Fund of around Rs. 41 billion at present, and the force has been showing interest to invest it in the national projects like hydropower, establishing its own pharmaceutical company, water plants, emulsion plants, among others. But NA’S Act of 2006 does not allow them to do so?
The NA Welfare Fund is around Rs. 40 to Rs. 41 billion. It needs to be utilised in a very productive sectors of the country. And to do so, we need an extensive discussion among us for letting them to open the door to invest it in the country’s mega projects. The money they have earned till today and which has been deposited in several banks and the interest they are getting from its deposit could be viewed satisfactorily.
When the nation faces some crisis like extreme fuel shortage in the county, we have siad that NA should be given authority to operate and manage nation’s fuel distribution responsibility. We want NA to operated its own oil tankers across the country to ease fuel crisis when the country faces fuel crisis.
The NA has not directly shown its interest to do business from its fund, but they are equally seeking government’s ownership or involvement prior to directly investing their fund in any kind of business. Still, the NA is adhering to each and every responsibility mandated to them only after receiving the country’s executive head’s order and decision by completely remaining under the Constitution.
The NA is the only such institution in Nepal which is functioning fully under its own chain of command. The NA never works under the command and direction of one single political party and their leader, but it the institution which functions under the command and direction of an elected and executive head of the government.
The NA should not be directly involved in trade and business. But it will be logical and defendable, when they present themselves as a capable institution to be operated only through the direction of the government.
NA is currently undertaking one of the national pride projects and that is Kathmandu-Terai/Madhes Expressway. This multimillion dollar project is itself going to be a first time experience to the NA and the government as well. In this context, why is the project sometimes being dragged into criticism for awarding projects to local contractors?
As I have already told you that the Fast Track project was not itself given to the NA just on their interest and demand. But the project was given as per the political decisions and consent of the then government and parliamentarian committee.
The responsibility to open the Fast Track was given to NA in 2009. But when it comes about preparing and drafting the detailed project (DPR) of the project, the issue became so debatable that how and through which process, the DPR prepared by India should be accepted. The whole parliamentary committee intensively held discussion on it and decided not to accept that condition bound DPR prepared by the Indian companies. And then, a decision was made to give the project’s overall responsibility to the NA in 2017.
According to the latest progress report of the fast track project, the NA has already completed more than 60 per cent of ground works of cutting and filling works of the project. At present, only works on the tunnel and high rise bridges are left and currently the NA is going through pre-qualification stages to choose international consultants to begin the next level of works.
The present government passed National Security Policy on March 18, 2018, but has not made it public till date. Why?
The National Security Policy was made in 2016. Under the changed political context, it was necessary to prepare the policy at that time. The national security policy of the every country changes with the changed political context and demand. When I took the charge as Defence Minister on February 26, 2018, necessity was felt to update the one prepared in 2016. The decision to update in the provisions of the policy was, however, formally decided in the National Security Council, which is headed by Prime Minister. After taking a time of more than eight months, a review committee prepared it under my tenure.
The NSP is not like a bill but it is the policy prepared to be taken and owned by the federal government. This can be amended again when another government comes. It is true that the government is yet to make it public after the it felt the necessity to discuss it and insert some specific provisions. It may or may not be published but the government functions under this policy.
At present, the government is preparing to formulate new bill as dreamed by the National Security Policy. And this process will begin simultaneously, after the government takes back the previously drafted bill from the parliament and registers new bill in the parliament. At present, we are giving it final touches and will very soon register a bill prepared for the National Security Policy.
Why is there a dispute in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) over the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)?
Every single issue gets over-politicised in Nepal. Every issue is viewed with the eyes of political principles. No military alliance will be acceptable for the country and this is the loudest stand of the country. We have been repeatedly and loudly making this voice heard in the national and international forums.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy has its own historic process. There is also a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and MCC. What the country wants is support. We will accept all the supports that are in national interest and this is also applied to BRI, IPS and MCC.
The MCC was officially launched in 2004. Some developing countries applied for this grant of the American government, including Nepal. And Nepal was selected for the grant for building cross-border transmission lines, and roads.
There might be some interests of the country granting support and this is understood. But what matters more is the stand we take. But we are unnecessarily sensitising the issue. We have bilateral military ties with China, America, Europe and some other countries. But military alliance will never be acceptable. We are always guided by national interests.
The issue of Nepal Trust is widely criticised? Being a chair of the Trust will you clarify on the issue?
Those, persons and organisations associated with the state operation cannot go against the law. Being a chair of the Trust I can say that the lease agreement established with the Yeti Holding is lawful and transparent. The agreement was first reach on 2052 B.S, and then the deal was renewed in different period by different governments. The agreement was renewed as per the market price for additional benefit to the state, as mentioned in the Nepal Trust Act and Regulation.
The agreement was renewed according to the legal process initiated by the previous governments. If an organisation or a person who leases the Trust’s property can spend extra capital for the maintenance of the property and will be able to ensure further benefits to the trust, then the government in the recommendation of the Trust can extend the lease term before the tenure of the previous agreement expires. Earlier, the business has been paying Rs. 5 million US dollar royalty in 30 years, now the property will pay Rs. 1.14 billion royalty to the trust and the will pay Rs. 4.5 billion to the state in 40 years. Before reaching the agreement, the trust had conducted multiple consultations with different stakeholders.
Why does every step of the government draw flak?
There is no doubt that the government is lacking on the part of informing people appropriately about the government decisions and performance. But the main thing is that some internal and external forces are unable to accept the existence of the communist government in Nepal. Despite the exceptional and progressive works, the government has failed in branding its performance in an attractive package. And these forces are taking advantages of this loophole. We don’t want any favour from the media but we want them to present truth with evidences.
How sensitive is the government to review its performance?
The practice we have been following for a long time has become a habit. But this conventional practice is now contradicting the new constitutional provisions. The spirit of the Constitution is demanding certain thing but we are not being able to update the practice.
(Prepared by Arpana Adhikari and Purusottam P Khatri.
Photographs by Kabita Thapa.)
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