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Everyone has been staying indoors for weeks ever since Nepal followed China’s lockdown model to contain the spread of coronavirus. A few thousand are in quarantine centres while a few migrant returnees are struggling in isolation wards.

At this point, Nepal’s national army seems poised to utilise the crisis as yet another opportunity to bolster its influence. Meanwhile, ruling leaders are setting the stage for a profit-mongering army to share in their common interest.

Just a few days before bagging the Covid19 medical equipment procurement deal, the Nepal Army hastily selected a controversial South Korean consulting firm for the design and construction supervision of the Kathmandu-Terai fast-track road. The firm was chosen for providing consultancy service worth millions of dollars, all the while breaching public procurement rules.

It would not be too far-fetched to say that the army seems to be running a parallel administration from the barracks, encouraged by elected representatives eager to hide their own shortcomings. The army has been able to fast-track its way through a lot of this decision-making by suspending the mandatory protocols for procurement, including an open call for tenders.

Ruling leaders entrusted the Nepal Army to import medical equipment after their decision to offer the contract to their favoured company Omni Group fell through amid corruption allegations. Shortly after the government’s declaration, the deal with the business firm had to be scrapped as their bid was three times higher than what other private hospitals were paying for personal protective equipment (PPEs) and other medical supply.

Instead of importing medical essentials in a transparent, ethical and timely manner, the government, which has been accused of deliberately delaying negotiations in order to receive a good kickback, ultimately handed over the entire job to the army as a convenient option. The leadership has retrospectively justified that its reason for terminating the contract was because the business firm had not been able to supply goods by 2 April, the stipulated deadline.

But over a week has elapsed since the first deal was terminated and the army has not shown any success in being able to supply medical equipment either. Neither is there any clarity about whether the costs of supplies under the army’s hands will be cheaper than what Omni Group had quoted. Nevertheless, the Nepal Army is already mulling over where it will supply PPE and essential medical equipment.

The only thing the army has offered to the public so far is a spectacle in the form of a virtual press briefing which it used to brush off public criticism in front of a handful of reporters.

“There shouldn’t be any doubt about the procurement process. We are keeping in mind transparency and austerity measures,” a spokesperson said.

It goes without saying that Nepal severely lacks adequate medical infrastructure, even by pre-corona standards. Despite being the seventh country globally and the first in South Asia to have a confirmed case of the virus, it is baffling to see that the government failed to procure essentials in a timely fashion and has now mandated the entire task to the army. It is equally peculiar that the national army, established for safeguarding national security, is involving itself in day-to-day administrative tasks.

Many blame political leaders for delaying procurement just enough to stall regular protocols and make money in the process. Under special circumstances, the government can designate a firm or organisation of its choice to procure goods without an open bidding process.

Cue in the army which is beyond the jurisdiction of anti-corruption bodies including the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). Even though the parliament ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption – which brings the army, judiciary, political parties, I/NGOs and private businesses under the Commission’s jurisdiction – in 2011, little has been achieved to actively bring the army’s dealings under its scrutiny.

Ever since the decade-long insurgency ended in 2007, the army has gradually shifted its role as ensurer of national security to become more profit oriented, a shift emboldened by the free pass granted by the nation’s chief executive. Delays in bringing the army under CIAA’s jurisdiction have meant that, unlike top bureaucrats or chiefs of the Nepal Police and the Armed Police Force, not a single army general who has indulged in corruption has had to face repercussions.

The Nepal Army expanded its organizational strength to nearly 100,000 after the People’s Liberation Army was integrated into it during the post-civil war era. Now it is expanding its reach to every sector with a profit-making potential; from education to health, real estate to construction, microfinance to water treatment, petrol pumps to procurement deals.

The army’s welfare fund was established in 1975-76 by collecting cuts from Nepali peacekeeping missions working in war-torn countries. While its initial capital was worth NRS 1.24 million, the fund currently boasts a hefty NRS 50 billion.

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