Nepali Times
Strictly Business
Misrule of law


If you are Raghu Pant, the Minister of Labour and Transport, what would you do to ultimately save face? You would put on a Minister-knows-best cap to cancel the registration of a private sector firm. In doing so, you would make that firm's investors' money worthless, throw its employees out on the streets, damage its relations with suppliers and clients and show all others who is boss.

But winning the battle would also mean losing the war, which, as a Marxist, Raghuji would know. Through his action, his silent signal would be that the government of Nepal could arbitrarily destroy private firms that it has problems with, even if that firm's in a cut-throat competitive market. Instead of sorting out these problems by fighting its case to the finish in a court of law to establish impersonal precedents to deal with similar cases in future, the government could interpret the law itself, decide what's legal and illegal as though it were a court and then take actions in the name of some vague public good.

For somebody who once ran his own paper, Pant should have known better. Only 15 years ago, owners of fledgling private sector media houses in Nepal lived in constant fear of having registrations cancelled by the Panchayat government with the flimsiest of excuses. That fear so paralysed the publishers' business plans that they were finally able to band together to get rid of it by getting a clause of their own in the 1990 constitution that says under no circumstances can the government cancel the registration of any media house.

And no matter how Nepal continues to rank in various indices of global press freedom, that clause continues to assure all non-profit and for-profit media houses that whatever problems they may have with the government, cancellation of registrations through diktat by the Ministry of Information is never going to be one of the outcomes. It is rather odd that while the private sector media is thus shielded from government arbitrariness that threatens their existence, private sector firms-who too are in the same business of using private money as investment, providing employment, supplying goods and services to those who pay for them, paying taxes and keeping the economy going- continue to have no choice but to ultimately kneel down even before a short-term Minister lest he, in a fit of righteous anger, made them legally non-existent.

To be sure, few would mistake Lumbini Overseas, the firm whose registration Pant cancelled, as a model corporate citizen. The allegations against it are damning: it extorted lakhs of money from job applicants, it sent more than 1,500 undocumented workers to South Korea and it evaded taxes. Although these malpractices may also exist among 400-plus 'manpower' firms, the fact is that Pant's ministry hasn't proven any of those allegations against Lumbini in a court of law, much less shown what 'special circumstances' (as stated in Section 21 of Foreign Employment Act of 1988) warranted the cancellation of its registration. This provides a window for Lumbini and other business bodies to mount a legal challenge against Pant's action, if they still have energy left to do so.

But for Pant, a larger question remains: If the ends justified the means, as in this case, then, how different really is his action from that of the Maoists or the Panchayatis who too think that arbitrarily trampling upon the rights of those who they do not like is justified in the name of righting perceived wrongs?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)