15 March, 2012

Secretive dam deals in Nepal

Sushma Joshi
March 15, 2012

Recent attempts to by-pass regulation include the hasty and secretive way in which the government gave the go-ahead to the Three Gorges Company of China without any competitive bidding to build a dam in Western Nepal, giving itself 25% while China took 75% of the deal. The 1.8 billion dollar West Seti would generate 750 megawatts of energy.  A parliamentary probe was held around Three Gorges' contract in Nepal. With public inquiry, the deal was changed to 49% for Nepal Government and 51% for the Three Gorges Company. And yet, the way in which this deal was structured and the way in which it was initially passed should have all of us asking questions on whether this electricity will ever be delivered--especially with the way this company has already tried to defraud the Nepal Government with an absurdly unfair deal from the start.

The lack of environmental assessments, including issues of sustainability, is another troubling factor. Three Gorges company's projects are already controversial in China, especially for their harmful environmental impacts.  The Wall Street Journal recently reported on how trash was threatening to jam Three Gorges' dam in China.
China's need for energy is well-known. In Burma, Kachin people waged a successful protest movement and halted the Myitsone Dam—a $3.6 billion hydropower project at the source of the Irrawaddy River in Burma’s Kachin State--because they felt the project would benefit China and not the Kachin people. For the first time after decades of military junta rule, Burma’s President Thein Sein suspended construction “to respect the will of the people.”  This was an unprecedented win for a minority group in Burma that had been waging a revolt against the state for decades.

China is not the only country whose contracts should receive more scrutiny by the Nepali democratic forces. The American company Texana recently said it would go in for international arbitration to regain the money it paid to Nepal in "rent" for certain blocks that it had gotten rights to drill for oil. But who gave it the rights? And to whom did it pay the "rent" and fees? As governments change with rapidity, it is essential that the civil structure of Nepal's government remain untouched through political changes. Which means that the handling of much of the energy contracts should be done by an entity outside the direct purview of changing political institutions--perhaps the Nepal Investment Board, or an authority of a similar nature.  And something as large a project as oil exploration should definitely be publicly discussed, and disclosed, before it is passed. Unlike Texana, which is a company Nepalis had not heard of till 2012, but which was apparently operating in Nepal since 1998, we should make sure that any future company that gets a contract in Nepal is publicly transparent, and all of the nature of its dealings is clear to the public.

In fact, the democratic process is one thing that the democrats who have taken over Parliament seem to abhor. Nepalis, used to authority, hungry for electricity, believing that they won’t be sold down the river again as they have repeatedly, believe the Three Gorges Company will deliver. But belief is not enough. If the Maoists are as democratic as they like to claim, they would have put out a publiccall for proposals, taken bids, and chosen the most reliable company out of all the ones who submitted. Now that would have been democracy.

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