NTB in a fix

Suspension of senior staffers on the charge of corruption has affected day-to-day activities of NTB

Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), which was regarded as one of the best models of public private partnership (PPP) in the country until few years ago, has fallen into a severe crisis. Two incumbent board members as well as almost all senior staffers have been suspended after Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) filed corruption charges against them. CIAA filed corruption against 23 officials including acting CEO Subash Nirola and two incumbent government secretaries. They have been accused of embezzling Rs 346 million by abusing authority. The incident has dealt a severe blow on NTB whose regular activities had been affected for nearly three years in the absence of CEO.

CIAA has filed a case against them at the Special Court under the Corruption Prevention Act-2059 BS after a 10-month investigation. It has demanded Rs 816 million (that includes money embezzled by the accused as well as fine. According to CIAA, the accused have been charged with embezzling of funds by including submitting fake bills of office expenditures and causing additional burden on the Board of Directors, among others.

Those facing CIAA charges are former acting CEO Subash Nirola, former CEO Prachandaman Shrestha, director Anil Kumar Das, director Nandini Lahe Thapa, senior director Aditya Baral, director Hikmat Singh Ayer, director Kashiraj Bhandari, manager Dhruba Kumar Rai, senior manager Leela Bahadur Baniya, senior manager Diwakar Bikram Rana and manager Laxman Gautam. Similarly, CIAA has also charge-sheeted secretaries Sharad Chandra Poudel and Ranjan Krishna Aryal, joint secretaries Dilli Prasad Siwakoti and Purna Chandra Bhattarai, director general of Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) Ratish Chandra Lal Suman, former tourism secretary Sushil Ghimire, former board members Tikaram Sapkotam, Pampha Dhamala, Rebat Bahadur Thapa, Dhruba Narayan Shrestha and Phurba Gyaljen Sherpa, and tourism entrepreneur Mahendra Khanal.

According to Corruption Prevention Act, one is automatically suspender from the post if corruption case is filed against him/her.

Transaction of over Rs 800 million had been found to be suspicious. The biggest irregularity was done through the 192nd meeting of the NTB that was held without completing quorum. Minute of the meeting shows payment of Rs 74 million to different individuals and groups, even though they were actually to be paid just Rs 12.10 million. Nirola has also been found to have withdrawn, and spent, over Rs 20 million in the name of different employees of NTB. A single individual has been found to have written the receiver documents of all companies. Likewise, Rs 4.44 million was embezzled on June 23 and 24, 2013 by stamping the receipt paper without mentioning amount and check number, according to a report published in Karobar daily.

The report further states that NTB does not have any evidence for expenditure of Rs 590.75 million and it is silent about where and how the amount was spent. “There is mention of payment of Rs 11.36 million to Shiva Printing in the fiscal year 2068/69 but the purpose is not revealed, and there are no documents related about the payment. Similarly, advance of Rs 2.50 million in the name of NTB staffer Kundan Kafle has also not been settled. NTB staffers also have been found to have received advance payment up to four times in a day,” it added.

Similarly, there are no expenditure details and evidence for Rs 53.89 million withdrawn in the fiscal year 2069/70 in the name of tourism promotion.

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The irregularities came to light after tourism entrepreneurs formed Joint Tourism Coordination Committee (JTCC) and launched nearly two-month long protest in NTB. Before starting the protest, JTCC had given a four-point memorandum to tourism minister Bhim Acharya on April 22. In the memorandum, the private sector had urged Minister Achrya to stop National Tourism Fair, which, they said, was being organized without consulting with the private sector. They had also demanded probe into financial activities of NTB over the past five years, remove Subash Nirola from the post of acting CEO of NTB to pave the way for early appointment of new CEO, and restructuring of NTB to ensure the private sector’s say in the executive board of NTB.

Later, JTCC issued a whitepaper on irregularities at NTB. JTCC members unearthed irregularities at NTB and shared them with media persons. CIAA had received more than 20 complaints about irregularities at NTB almost a year ago.

On the pressure of private sector, the government had formed a probe team under joint secretary Purna Chandra Bhattarai. After studying its report, the the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the parliament had instructed the government to suspend Nirola and take appropriate action against him. Nirola was suspended from the post accordingly.

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WHAT NEXT?

With all senior level staffers suspended, daily activities of NTB has come to a grinding halt.  An emergency board meeting of NTB has decided to form a five-member sub-committee to run day-to-day activities at the country’s tourism promotional body. The sub-committee has been formed under board member Rajendra Sapkota as an interim measures to fill the void at the NTB. Two other members represent the government sector, with a joint-secretary at the Tourism Ministry being named a member-secretary at the board, while remaining two will be from the private sector.

According to board member Ghanendra Shrestha, the committee would recommend the government to induct professional and skilled manpower at the board as a stop-gap measure until fate of suspended staffers of NTB is decided. “The sub-committee would recommend the number of people required to manage the ongoing understaffing crisis at the board,” he added.

Shrestha said daily works of NTB have been going on as usual. “We cannot say that the vital posts are lying vacant as the staffers are only suspended till the investigation is over. We are also talking with the government and travel trade association to address the issue,” he added. Shrestha also said the NTB will continue to work as per the aspiration of the private sector and in the spirit of public-private-partnership.

Basanta Mishra, former board member of NTB and chairman of Temple Tiger Group, said the need of the hour is to save the institution. “Incidents occur, but that does not mean that the institutions should be collapsed. NTB was established with the concept of private public partnership and is also a good example of the model. Due to political disturbances in the country, it had once become play ground for some. This led to the present crisis,” he said, adding, “We should lay our focus on ways to resolve the crisis and strengthen the institution.” Mishra said the industry should move ahead by making amendment to the NTB Act if need be. “NTB has always been a vital part of Nepal’s tourism and it has been doing its bit in promoting Nepal in national and international market. The current crisis, if not resolved in time, will impact the entire tourism industry,” he said, urging all to protect this institution.

Binayak Shah, general secretary, of Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN), said stakeholders of tourism industry should come together to protect NTB. “NTB was already in crisis due to absence of CEO. The present stalemate will further aggravate the situation,” Shah said, adding, “Now is the time to address all flaws in NTB and develop it as the best model of public private partnership.”

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