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VII: Another viewpoint
VIII: The ambassador speaks
Josy Joseph in Kathmandu
'These officials were directly involved in smuggling activities right from its planning to implementation stage.
'Some political leaders and senior officials appear to be directly involved in certain cases of smuggling and other illegal activities.'
-- Joint Parliamentary Committee of Nepal, 1999.
That is a bit of an understatement. For what was not mentioned is that some government officials, for a hefty monetary consideration, had allegedly even 'auctioned' off the airport to a group of smugglers at one time.
The matter received a great deal of media attention, but no legal action was initiated.
With security being a pretty meaningless term here and the levels of corruption being embarrassingly high, even by local bureaucratic standards, the only people who feel completely at home there are those with something to hide.
Therefore, it was quite natural that this was the airport that the hijackers of Indian Airlines Flight 814 boarded from on December 24. In fact, a few minutes before the flight took off, Mohammed Arshad Cheema, the Pakistan embassy's first secretary (consular), walked in through the diplomatic channel, thereby avoiding what passes for a security check, and reportedly handed over a bag to one of the hijackers. Fortunately perhaps, the transaction was noted and found mention in the airport records.
On March 1, 1997 a coalition government led by Lokendra Bahadurchandra came to power and hung around awhile till its dissolution on October 4. But during that period the government allegedly managed that infamous 'auction'. Several politicians and officials apparently got a cut in the deal.
Communist leader and deputy prime minister at the time Bamdev Gautam strenuously denied the charges in a conversation with rediff.com, claiming there were just allegations made by political opponents. But newspaper reports of that time were insistent that the politicians had indeed made such a deal.
When the stench of corruption became really unbearable, the Nepalese parliament, in June 1999, appointed a joint parliamentary committee to investigate the allegations about the airport. The report, tabled on September 23, 1999, made public what was already common knowledge. But with some details.
None of the 56 agencies on duty at the airport could provide the JPC with a comprehensive picture of the security of the airport since 'these subjects did not fall within the jurisdiction of their duties.'
The agencies were 'not found vigilant, alert and responsible enough to control illegal activities.'
The security committee, under the tourism minister, which is in charge of airport security, had met only once in 2.5 years. Entry passes were being distributed freely, even to gold importers, on recommendations from customs officials.
On the departure side, the JPC noted, duty-free shops, commercial bank counters etc were located beyond the immigration counter and the passenger security check-point. The JPC felt this more than a little irregular, going by international standards.
The JPC said a 'market-like situation' prevailed after the security check-point and that even unauthorized people went beyond the security check-point.
The JPC also found that the VIP lounge was always crowded and that unauthorized persons went in and out without any security or customs checks. The parliamentarians also concluded that since goods passing through the VIP lounge were not checked, it was quite possible that contraband moved through it too.
The lift meant for handicapped people the toilet near a room of the narcotic drugs control unit was being used for 'illegal activities,' the report asserted.
The closed circuit televisions and their cameras were in place, but none of the security personnel knew how they were operated.
Against this background, it is not very surprising that the committee found that the day-to-day functioning was of pretty low standard too.
The committee said Royal Nepal Airlines flights from places like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore and Dubai to Kathmandu were being used for smuggling for 'very many years.'
The JPC also probed the seizure of a huge quantity of gold in February 1994 'in which reward of about Rs 8 million was paid to the informer.' The JPC found there was no informer.
When the JPC asked for records relating to disbursement of the reward, the then finance minister Dr Ram Sharan Mahat asked JPC chairman Pari Thapa not to probe such cases. The JPC was not able to find the relevant records and observed that it was not proper on the finance minister's part to 'pressurise and influence it.'
Mahat, a former employee of a UN agency in Pakistan, is the current foreign minister of Nepal. Despite repeated attempts by rediff.com to contact him, he unavailable for comment.
Other politicians say the smugglers's cause is aided by political instability within the country.
The JPC report said, 'Seven governments were formed during 1994 to 1998. It was alleged that smuggling syndicates and economic offenders also played a major role in the fall and formation of governments.
'Some political leaders and senior officials appeared to be directly involved in certain cases of smuggling and other illegal activities. The finance and home ministries did not extend help and co-operation to the JPC to collect full information relating to revenue leakage and this attitude indicates a clear nexus between the police, the immigration and customs officials and the smugglers,' the report said.
When I was completing my security check, (which was not very thorough anyway), the official, who was a little surly till then, turned to me and said, "I have not checked anything. You carry on. You look like a nice chap."
I picked up my bag and began making my way towards the departure lounge. The security official called me back and said, "Give me something for pleasure's sake."
Rs 50 in Nepali currency thrilled him beyond words.
Design: Dominic Xavier
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