Lawmakers on Wednesday took the government to task for not beginning proceedings against officiating CEO Subash Nirola and other officials of the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) who have been charged with institutional misconduct and corruption.
The parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) summoned Tourism Ministry officials to Wednesday’s meeting and asked them for a status report of the action being taken against corruption at the country’s tourism promotional body.
“The government has not moved against the offending NTB officials,” said lawmaker Rajan KC. “Nirola has been charged with financial irregularities, but no action has been taken against him. This clearly shows that the government is not serious about controlling corruption.”
However, Tourism Ministry Spokesperson Mohan Krishna Sapkota said it had sent the investigation report produced by a seven-member committee to the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) with its recommendation that action be taken against the corrupt NTB officials. The anti-graft body is also investigating the same issue.
“As the ministry is not authorised to take action against the wrongdoers, the report has been submitted to the CIAA.” According to him, there are more than 13 cases related to the NTB under consideration by the Supreme Court.
Nirola had lodged a complaint at the court against Purna Chandra Bhattarai, then the joint secretary at the ministry who led the probe committee, charging that the government committee was not authorised to investigate NTB matters, Sapkota told PAC.
On September 8, the committee had submitted its report to the then tourism minister Bhim Acharya. The probe has uncovered that Nirola including high-ranking government officials and NTB board members had misused millions in tax money.
The report has stated that policy and financial corruption has plagued the country’s tourism promotion body, and it has recommended taking stern action against those involved in the malpractices.
Top government officials including former tourism secretary Sushil Ghimire have also been charged with abusing authority to amend the NTB’s Financial Bylaws giving the NTB chief a free hand in spending tax funds.
“The bylaws have been amended unlawfully, and the NTB has not been able to spend its money on the right purposes,” Sapkota told the lawmakers. The amended bylaws that have upset the tourism industry have given the NTB’s chief executive exclusive rights to spend freely in excess of the limit set by the Public Procurement Act (PPA).
The bylaws also allow the board to award contracts without competitive bidding even though the act says that 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 Rs 10 million at a time for tourism promotion activities inside the country.
Similarly, the chief can spend $ 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 $ 400,000 at a time through its honorary representatives and firms.
“The 192nd NTB board meeting made a serious mistake,” he said. The NTB board had approved a budget of Rs 74 million although there was no quorum.
Although 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 fulfil the quorum to release payment.
“The Tourism Ministry had also directed the board not to implement the meeting’s minutes, but the order was disregarded,” Sapkota said.
Lawmaker Top Bahadur Rayamajhi said that former tourism secretary Ghimire was also guilty as he had abused his authority. “Ghimire should be summoned before PAC because nobody should be shown leniency.”
The report also showed a mismatch between payment vouchers and the actual payment. For example, NTB allocates Rs 600,000 annually for legal consultancy services, but in reality, payments came to more than Rs 3.6 million.
Likewise, NTB allocates Rs 500,000 for auditing, but the payment has been shown to be Rs 4 million. In the name of outstanding revenue heading, NTB officials have been found to have submitted hefty restaurant bills to artificially inflate the figure.
Likewise, Nirola hired 27 people as interns and paid them large salaries which is against the NTB’s Employees Service Act. The report also pointed out that Nirola had been using all the appliances issued in the name of the Tourism for Rural Poverty Alleviation Programme at his home.
The NTB operates two different accounts under the names of Nirola and his manager Anil Das, while all the tasks of the NTB’s regional offices have been conducted from the head office.