Nepali Times

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has hatched a cunning plan. Since everyone was giving him a hard time about his jumbo cabinet, he's got two ministers embroiled in corruption scandals to resign. Great way to kill two birds with one stone: downsize cabinet and come out smelling like roses.

The Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation Gopal Man Shrestha and his deputy minister, Surendra Hamal, both resigned last week over a complicated scam involving timber and forests. So what else is new, you might say, we know it's a jungle out there.

The ruling party and the main opposition have both made corruption control their main platform. The trouble was that the proposed Anti-Corruption Bill had teeth and could come back to bite them. So, after letting it languish in parliament for over a year, both parties have quietly let the bill lapse. As a fig leaf, we now have a high-level judicial commission to investigate the ill-gotten wealth of public officials.

For as long as anybody can remember, Nepal's forests have been the source of boundless riches for plunder-minded politicians. There was a patriotic Panchayat-era slogan that went: Hariyo Ban Nepalko Dhan ("Green forests are Nepal's wealth"). Unfortunately, many politicians took that to mean "Nepal's forests are our greenbacks". Whenever someone needed to be bought off, political patronage was needed, a referendum bankrolled, or local warlords swayed, public officials went for our forests. The sal jungles of the char kose jhari didn't stand a chance, and after decades of onslaught they are nearly gone.

One of the last tracts of forest in Chitwan which is not a part of the national park, but is a vital jungle corridor to the Mahabharat Hills has been decimated in the past three months because a corrupt District Forest Officer (DFO) has looked the other way. In the past six months in Kanchanpur alone, local political activists estimate that Rs 220 million of timber has been poached and smuggled into India.

The resignation of timber dealers Messrs Shrestha, Hamal & Co, therefore, is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite their sanctimonious statements professing innocence, there is no doubt that both were up to their ears in it. Both pots are black, it's just a question of which one is blacker.

Let us try to summarise it for you. The deputy minister had got official sanction to approve the lucrative transfers of DFOs. It is common knowledge that DFOs don't get transferred to juicy tarai districts that still have some forests left (like Morang, Banke or Kanchanpur) without having to deposit a sack of cash at the minister's doorstep. This had been going on for a while, and everyone got his cut and everyone was happy. But the junior minister slyly re-transferred cronies that the senior minister had himself just transferred a few months previously.

Are you following us so far? Now, here is where the plot thickens. When it looked like Shrestha would expose his erstwile prot?g?, Hamal, he (Hamal) decided to pour turpentine on troubled waters. He went public with an alleged bribe of Rs 200,000 paid on behalf of a Nepalgunj turpentine tycoon who was expanding his resin empire in the pine forests of the wild west by the Banke MP, Mangal Tharu, who owed him a favour for financing his (Banke MP's) campaign two years ago.

MP Tharu claims he even took down the serial numbers of the bank notes handed over to Minister Shrestha. Why he would do that we don't know, since this would implicate him as well. But it is clear that the senior minister was using his portfolio to carry on a roaring business. The junior minister, who has just built himself a sky-scraper in Libang within full view of the Maoists across the valley, was feeling constricted by a boss who was dipping into his own effort to put together a nest egg. Besides, the junior minister has the patronage of the all-powerful Home Minister, Khum Bahadur Khadka, the political alpha-male of the present government.
It is whispered that Shrestha and Hamal refused to obey Deuba and resigned only after Khum Bahadur gave the nod. These shenanigans show that even at a time of national crisis, the preoccupation of just about everyone in this government is to stash cash in their political war-chests. And the stench is getting overpowering. There is a labour minister who owns a manpower export company, another is busy doling out slots in the electro-magnetic spectrum, there are fat contracts coming up in Melamchi, juicy real-estate tied up with impending privatisation.

The obscenity is that all this is happening during a month when 300 Nepalis died fighting each other. And still we wonder why there is no development, and what drives the Maoists to revolution?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)