Nepali Times
Strictly Business
Well-oiled palms


Our investigation [shows] that the moment the 'mother stock' of petrol and diesel enters Nepal from India, there is systematic adulteration every step of the way: along the side of the highway to the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) depot at Amlekhgunj, in the distribution network from Amlekhgunj to Kathmandu, at petrol pumps all over the country. The protection racket goes up the NOC ranks, to the politicians. And everybody gets his share."

So reported this newspaper in December 2000. Krishna Upreti of Chitwan's New Sita Oil even said: "There is no way I could make a profit without mixing kerosene with petrol and diesel." At the time, this widely published revelation met with no hue and cry from the politically partial and led-by-Harendra-Bahadur-Shrestha-forever Nepal Consumers' Forum (NCF).

In fact, judging from the then lassitude of so-called consumer rights advocates, the news that our government officials along with their political masters were in bed with petroleum dealers to sell diluted petrol to unsuspecting consumers was just another boringly predictable story on corruption.

Or so it seemed, until this week. Suddenly, the story got interesting. Madan Raj Sharma, the immediate past general manager of NOC, is now in jail-arrested on graft charges. On its own, his arrest symbolised the corruption in NOC. The government sent out letters to private owners of petrol depots, asking them to sell kerosene separately, from a location that is at least a km from their existing business. Unhappy with that, the Nepal Petroleum Dealers' Association (NPDA)-the Nepal Media Society equivalent of petrol depot owners (ie, another cartel)-has hit back by instructing its members to shut down all depots for now.

The result is that despite NOC's assurance that there are adequate petroleum products in the country, one can, at the time this piece is being written, only buy them at a few state-run depots. But if there's anyone to be blamed, it's all three groups: NPDA, the government and NCF, but for different reasons.

NCF, despite its high-sounding name, rarely undertakes any proactive work and preemptive investigations on behalf of consumers it purports to represent. Looking at which way political winds are blowing, it is reduced to merely hogging the media with predictably safe comments too late and too little, that too, only after issues have come to a boiling point. In this case too, its prolonged silence in the face of the December 2000 media investigation should tell most sensible Nepalis that this organisation lacks credibility when it comes to really pushing for consumer rights at all times.

It's also an open secret that government officials were in cahoots with NPDA members. But the government abruptly changed its tune. It's like when one thief suddenly changes profession to be a police officer, the other is angry. This is what happened here. Pampered NPDA is sulking in a corner like a betrayed friend.

Still, much of the blame should go to NPDA. Not only was it pursuing a myopic strategy to adulterate petrol with the government as a silent partner, it is also stuck in an industry in which the government is the one and only authorised supplier. Short of getting out of this lucrative business altogether, the NPDA members have no choice but to grease palms to buy more time, or come around to agree with whatever the government says, which, as this page goes to press on Tuesday evening, I predict they will do.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)