Noose tightens around Nepali tourism boss

Subash Nirola

He was known as a man of patronage whose network extended throughout the sprawling Nepali bureaucracy and politics. He was untouchable and all powerful. His fall is now imminent.

Following a corruption enquiry that lasted nearly a month, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Wednesday directed the Tourism Ministry to immediately suspend Subash Nirola from the posts of officiating CEO and director of the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB). He has been charged with misusing millions in tax money.

Nirola, who is also known for running an "authoritarian regime" at the office, had not relented easily.

He made a last ditch effort on Tuesday evening by sending a text message reading "Can we talk?" to lawmaker Dhan Raj Gurung, a key person at the PAC who stood firmly against him.

Even when the government formed a probe panel to look into alleged irregularities at the NTB, Nirola was unfazed and went to the court arguing that it was not authorised to investigate the board's affairs.

"There have been massive financial irregularities at the board, and closing one's eyes and ears to such misconduct is the worst kind of corruption," Gurung said.

Nirola is not the only one responsible for the financial and operational mess at the NTB. The PAC has also asked the ministry to direct the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) to proceed with legal action against former NTB chairman Sushil Ghimire and the board of directors who have been charged with encouraging corruption.

The NTB board consists of 11 members, five representing the government, five representing the private sector and the chairman. The tourism secretary chairs the board.

The board had amended its financial bylaws to allow it to award contracts without competitive bidding even though the Public Procurement Act (PPA) says tenders should be called before doing so.

Under the amendments to the Financial Bylaws that give sweeping powers to the NTB boss to dispense cash, the CEO can spend up to 10 million rupee (S$207,850) at a time for tourism promotion activities inside the country.

Similarly, the chief can spend US$400,000 at a time outside the country without following any due process of the PPA. The CEO has also been given the power to spend up to US$400,000 at a time through honorary representatives and firms.

The bylaws also allow the CEO to purchase goods on a piecemeal basis and appoint the internal auditor of the board. The amended financial bylaws were kept hidden for more than six months.

They were brought to light by travel trade entrepreneurs, sparking a 52-day-long protest after the government did not take the issue seriously. The PAC has directed the ministry to amend the financial bylaws in line with the country's PPA.

PAC Chairman Janardan Sharma said that the NTB's board of directors continued to violate the law even when their activities had been placed under scrutiny by the government.

On July 18, the NTB's 192nd board meeting chaired by Ghimire had approved a 74 million rupee budget for its administrative division without following due procedure.

The financial plan was passed without a quorum. The actual budget required was 12.1 million rupee, and the additional funds were released to pay the 26 personal security guards and a number of interns who had been hired by Nirola. The annual salaries of the interns amount to more than Rs 5 million.

Though two private sector representatives-Dhurba Narayan Shrestha and Rewat Bahadur Thapa-had been barred from sitting on the NTB board by the Patan Appellate Court, Shrestha had signed the minutes of the meeting to make a quorum to release payment.

On October 17, one of the five sitting NTB board members told the PAC that the 192nd board meeting was illegal as it had passed the budget without a quorum.

Irregularities resulting in the loss of millions of rupees have been pointed out in an investigation report submitted by a seven-member government panel to the ministry and the CIAA.

The report stated that the country's tourism promotion body was wracked by policy and financial corruption.

For example, the NTB allocates 605,000 rupee annually for legal consultancy services, but the actual expense amounts to more than 3.68 million rupee.

Likewise, the NTB earmarks 500,000 rupee for auditing but the payment shown is 4 million rupee. NTB officials have been found to have submitted fake restaurant bills to inflate the expenses under the outstanding revenue heading.

Similarly, the money collected by issuing Trekkers' Information Management System cards has been used arbitrarily.