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Bureaucracy as usual

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Stéphane Huët

For the first few days following the 25 April earthquake, everyone in the Nepal government was too shocked to get organised. The state’s preparedness was found to be wanting and there was confusion about what kind of emergency relief was needed most urgently, and where.

Ironically, those first few days before the government got its act together ensured that international help came in unhindered. Tents, medicine, food, equipment could all be brought in without hassles at customs.

Relief materials scattered in the open outside TIA's cargo. Pic: Stéphane Huët

Kathmandu Airport’s cargo, 3 June – Relief materials scattered in the open outside the terminal. Pic: Stéphane Huët

It was when the government woke up and started issuing directives and rules that things started going wrong. The Rastra Bank made a rudely-worded statement warning that any individual donation that didn’t go to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund would be ‘confiscated’. The PMO clarified that that was only for NGOs set up after 25 April, but the damage was done and Nepal probably lost tens of millions of dollars in aid.

Things were even more confused at customs where officials behaved as if it was any other day at work, there was no indication that they realised the enormity of the crisis and the urgency with which incoming relief material needed to be flown out to the mountains.

In an attempt to coordinate the response the government came up with a list of relief materials that were custom free on 30 April. But even after the publication of this list, local groups struggled to get relief materials through customs at Kathmandu airport and entry points.

A group of Nepalis bringing in 20 tents from India through Biratnagar customs a week after the quake were stopped and told to pay duty. Another group had 300 tents held up in New York because the courier company wanted assurance that it wouldn’t be detained in Kathmandu. An educational charity received 300 tents from India, but had to wait 12 days to clear it through airport customs.

“They always gave a new reason why we couldn’t take the tents,” the frustrated director of the education foundation told us. “They were never clear about what new paperwork was needed.”

Even if tent is on the list of customs-free materials, this charity had to pay warehouse fees to take their equipment out even though the delay was not their fault and the tents were lying outdoors and a third of them were missing.

Indeed, to describe the management of relief supplies at Kathmandu airport’s cargo terminal as ‘chaotic’ would be an understatement. Tents, clothes, medicines are scattered all in the open outside of the terminal. Some containers have been opened, and this correspondent walked right in without an ID card and without being stopped by anyone.

On 3 June the government introduced new guidelines for the distribution of imported relief materials. Since then, goods on the government’s list can still be imported without paying tax, but there is a catch: all such supplies have to be handed over to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) for distribution.

“An organisation which wants to distribute imported goods itself has to pay full customs duty,” explained Surya Sedai of the Department of Customs. “This is to minimise the risk of smuggling.”

But not even government units at the border seem to be aware of the list, as Jiwan Rai of Mondo Challenge found out too late on 7 June when he entered Nepal from Darjeeling with solar lamps donated by school children. His local partner, Helambu Education and Livelihood Project (HELP) had assured him there wouldn’t be problems.

But after the Armed Police Force at the Kakarvitta border verified the documents and waved him through, a Nepal Police checkpoint at Jore Simal stopped him and said the government’s new directive meant he couldn’t take the lamps without paying duty. Rai was willing to pay the duty, but was told that the lamps would be confiscated because it had already entered Nepal. We posed this to Nirman Kumar Bhattarai of Jhapa Customs Office, who just said they were the following the government’s rules.

Jenny Dubin is an American who has arranged to receive 250 tents from India to distribute in Dhading via Seva Foundation. The tents are now stuck at the Sunauli border. “It’s not only that we have to hand the tents over to the government,” said Dubin, “but we are even asked to pay the transportation to Kathmandu.”

She recognises materials entering Nepal need to be controlled but she feels this is a drastic procedure that undermines relief that Nepal desperately needs. “I don’t understand why they cannot distinguish between smugglers and legitimate registered NGOs,” Dubin said.

Khare in Dolakha, 5 June - Locals in remote regions affected by the earthquake are still in critical need of response.

Khare in Dolakha, 5 June – locals in remote regions have to walk for 2h30 to get relief materials.

Aid workers said that in some remote regions affected by the 25 April earthquake are still in critical need of response. In order to signify this urgency, an online petition has been launched on to request the Prime Minister to stop levying taxes on imported goods.

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6 Responses to “Bureaucracy as usual”

  1. namah on Says:


  2. Nick Gregory on Says:

    I’m the man who started the petition at which you mention in your report here. This petition is now ready to send to the Nepalese Government, but the government has closed their email address and there appears to be no way to send them the petition on line. If it can be published by your newspaper do please let me know as soon as possible and I will arrange for to send the petition with signatures and comments to you.

    Nick Gregory

  3. Stephan on Says:

    I do not understand why the people from Nepal are accepting this. These people who are abusing their position at custom must, I say must be put in prison immediately. People of Nepal catch them.
    You know what will happen? Donors around the world will just stop.

  4. Lyn on Says:

    i have dealt with Nepal customs in the past trying to take in school uniforms from another country. Customs tried to charge me $300 for 30kg of clothing. We decided to leave the clothing at the airport. All I can say is a FAT NEPALI IS A RICH NEPALI

  5. Jacob on Says:

    I don’t think this is a time for sending petitions, it’s a time for civil disobedience. For this to stop now, some brave people need to start walking through customs blockades with their supplies, peacefully resisting whatever happens next, and posting video of it all.

  6. Melissa Godden on Says:

    This disaster has affected everyone in Nepal, but it can unite everyone too. There has been much conflict in the past, which has allowed this incredible corruption to increase in the government. Maybe it is time for the people of Nepal to say no to corruption and conflict and to work together to rebuild their beautiful and sacred country from scratch? Not only the buildings and the roads, but the government and bureaucracy too!

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