Nepali Times
Strictly Business
Rights ravaged


Ten Nepalis died on the spot while more were injured when the roof of Manipal Teaching Hospital in Pokhara collapsed onto the lobby from a height of 70 ft on 20 October. The following midnight, government officials forced their way into the premises of seven-year-old Kantipur FM radio station in Kathmandu, confiscated equipment and shut down the station's transmission to eastern Nepal. Different though these incidents are, both provide a window into understanding the sorry state of our legal institutions when it comes to rights associated with running private enterprises and the attendant civil society activism in Nepal.

The Manipal victims were either low-level hospital staff or visitors from the midwestern hinterland. In other words, they were poor Nepalis, the ones least likely to know if legal solutions exist for their woes, and even if they do, how to go about obtaining them.

True, in an effort to repair its damaged reputation, the hospital, which is a part of a South Asia-wide chain, swung into a quick public relations exercise. But its one-sided offer of a pot of money to all victims added up to something less than the total cost of the roof itself. Still, what was disappointing was the absence of Nepal's various consumer rights groups. They needed to be there, not to play ideologically driven anti-business blame games but to process the step-by-step lessons of where and how things went wrong.

Yes, doing so requires resources and resourcefulness. But such actions ultimately ensure that the costs of such accidents are kept high for the offending parties in the future and that the affected consumers at least begin to see a semblance of a system for legally funnelling their grievances. As things stand, since no lessons appear to have been processed, if a nursing home's roof were to fall down tomorrow in Bhaktapur and kill 25 people, we would still have no system in place to deal with it in a way that respects victims' rights. As private businesses expand across Nepal, we cannot afford to continue to have a mishmash of various one-sided compensation processes
when accidents occur and lives are lost.

The raid at the for-profit radio station was abhorrent. But conceptually, such an action was no different from what Raghuji Panth did to Lumbini Overseas when he was Minister last year (Strictly Business, #227). In both cases, those in power were sure of their rightness and felt free to flout the due legal process, disrespect property rights and take arbitrary actions against private businesses in the name of some ill-defined social welfare.

Kathmandu's civil society pundits-with their knee-jerk anti-business mindset-who failed to shout against Minister Panth's arbitrary actions against Lumbini then, can now use the recent Kantipur example as a way to make pro-private property rights arguments. They can flay the present government for wielding illegitimate muscle power to make Nepali businesses, and by extension, everyone else, feel insecure to live and work in this country.

True, it's tempting to frame, as many have done, the Kantipur incident in terms of government squelching the freedom of the press, as though Kantipur were a complete charity organisation. But doing so repeatedly only distracts all from the urgency to look at a far greater right that is actually at stake: the right to be protected from coercive and arbitrary government actions regardless of whether you are a business or an individual.

Unless Nepal's civil society institutions and private businesses find a way to use the Manipal and Kantipur incidents to argue for a predictable and process-oriented legal system, theirs remains a fight for vague goals on multiple fronts against a government that refuses to see that its bullying only creates ripples that hurt those in Nepal all the more.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)