Nepali Times
Oil slick

The parastatal Nepal Oil Corporation is a parasite. But even by its dismal management standards, the decision this week to raise prices was daft.

The tyre-burning spree by acolytes of the Maoist parties in government also demonstrated exactly what is wrong with this country. But one can understand the fury of consumers. The street protests may have been orchestrated, but they showed the widespread anger felt towards the state, not just for the price hike but also its general incompetence and apathy to the needs of the people in the nearly two years it has been in power.

The timing of the price rise was all wrong, coming just as hopes for timely constituent assembly elections had been rekindled. It was like handing a reason on a platter to those who wanted any excuse to abort the elections yet again.

The intention behind the sudden price rise has to be questioned for operational reasons as well. Citing mounting losses, NOC had raised petrol prices just a week ago. Other than token opposition from some consumer groups, people at large had accepted that decision with considerable understanding and forbearance. When crude prices go up in international markets, there is no way to escape the repercussions in countries that depend on imported fuel.

The argument that NOC can't afford to pay India for the refined petroleum products doesn't make sense because the government could have easily reduced the tax and maintained prices. It wastes our taxes anyway.

But even more reprehensible than NOC's decision was the threat by the transportation cartels to raise fares by 25 percent. Diesel prices went up by less than that, and they are a small component of the operating costs of bus and truck companies. How could such a hefty increase be justified?

The price volatility in the international petroleum markets will probably continue, but this shouldn't translate into volatility in Nepal's politics. There must be a strategy to stabilise prices. Not that anyone is going to read this and take any action, but here are some ideas:

. Set aside a fund from fuel sales to absorb future price shocks
. Reduce dependence on imported oil by providing tax rebates for electric vehicles
. Parties should tell their student unions they can't burn tyres and bring the country to a halt every time they don't like something

The other thing to do is to abolish the corrupt parasitic monopoly called NOC and open up petroleum imports to the private sector. Our gas stations are the most squalid in South Asia and the fuel they sell is the most expensive and adulterated.

It is time to clean this up once and for all. And if this week's street riots had one message for our rulers, it was that people are fed up not only with the corruption and mismanagement of NOC, but with its utter lack of accountability.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)