By Purushottam P. Khatri
Kathmandu, Sept. 29: Grabbing the luxury of using government facilities appear to be the most sought-after goal of several Nepali bureaucrats, leaders, ministers and their hangers on. Every one of them looks like yearning for a free ride on a government vehicle, but some of the well-heeled lots have acquired privately-owned status for their free-to-ride government vehicles under various pretexts.
Many of these powerful individuals often draw flaks for misusing the vehicles for their private purposes, including travelling on public holidays on private number plates.
Taking family members to shops, schools or colleges or even to buy green vegetables or embarking on a long-haul ride to visit their near and dear ones are some of the charges they face while revelling their free ride.
A large number of government vehicles are found bearing privately registered number plates nowadays, apparently for ‘safety reasons’. However, an incident that took place on May 31, 2012 hinted that even the change in number plates would not save the rider of the vehicle.
When the then Supreme Court justice Rana Bahadur Bam was shot dead on a broad day light in Lalitpur on May 31, 2012 by four assailants, he was travelling on a government vehicle bearing a private number plate, Ba 8 Cha 9853.
Bam’s killing raises a question as to how safe it is to travel on the government vehicles having private number plates.
Private (Red Plate) vehicles
For the identity of a government motor vehicle as provisioned in the Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Act 1993 Chapter 9 (2), the vehicle shall have the white number plates/boards in red font and digits on its front and rear sides. Chapter 9 (1) defines government motor vehicles as vehicles registered in the name of any government office and owned by the government of Nepal and having obtained the certificate of registration.
If in case, for any particular reason, if any white number plate vehicle has to be converted into a private one, the Ministry of Home Affairs has a provision of giving such approval for a maximum one year. Under the provision, the Ministry has been found to have given such an approval to 132 government vehicles to convert them into private ones by changing their number plates from white to red. The approval is given if the people travelling on such vehicles are perceived to face threats of different kinds.
Of the total converted vehicles, permission was given to use 123 private vehicles to the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) and other nine units like Supreme Court and the courts under it, OPMCM and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In addition to the permitted number of private vehicles by the Home Ministry, 110 government vehicles were found converted into private vehicles. Among them, 100 government vehicles were found converted into private ones by the Supreme Court and other courts under it, nine vehicles by the OPMCM and one by Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A report of the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) stated that except for the permitted private number-plate vehicles by the Home Ministry, other 110 government vehicles-turned-private might have been misused. The OAG further suggested the government immediately transform the illegally converted private vehicles into government motor vehicles, and control and discourage the trend.
There are currently 4,841 Federal governmental units/offices, which have to come under annual auditing system as per the Audit Act-2018.
When The Rising Nepal daily asked the spokesperson and joint secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ram Krishna Subedi, about the matter, he refused to talk, citing that he was at a meeting. After the meeting was over, he said that he was going to Janakpur and thus was unable to manage time to answer the question.
Ministry has no knowledge
Under-secretary and information officer Umakanta Adhikari of the Home Ministry, however, said the Ministry had stopped recommending and giving anyone the private number plate for use on the government motor vehicle.
"The Ministry has not given any such approval to turn government vehicle as private vehicle by putting red number plates, and if anyone has done so, the Ministry has no idea about it," Adhikari said.
There is no regulation and work procedure to regulate such practices (turning government vehicles into private motor vehicles) introduced by the Ministry till date, he said. "Who is doing what and why, the Ministry is unable to tell anything about it," Adhikari said. When asked how the OAG annual report showed the misuse of 110 government vehicles by turning them as private ones, Adhikari said that the ministry had no idea how that happened, and when, but the trend has been stopped for the past few years.
Security expert Dr. Indra Adhikari said some high level government officials and some government employees were turning the white number plated vehicles into private ones for security reasons, but they are also found misusing the government property.
"Once the government vehicle is turned into a privately owned one by changing the number plates, they can take it anywhere they wish, carrying their family members, performing household work and sometimes, for private travel on public holidays as well," Adhikari said.
The government should stop the practice prevalent among the top level civil servants, because the private facility and security requirements are different, he said.
According to the report, some former Prime Ministers, Ministers and high level political appointees were using the vehicles of various project offices as their private vehicles after projects expired. According to the Financial Procedure Rules of 2007, and as mentioned in the rule number 57 (4), vehicles and any other physical property used by the government officials must be returned to the government.
According to the report, Chameliya Hydropower Project's eight Prado vehicles of Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) are being used by three ex-Prime Ministers, one by former Home Minister, one by Secretariat of the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers and three others are still used by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Nepal government on March 30, 2010 and on different other dates had decided to bring three Prado vehicles used by the Home Ministry under the registration of the government by releasing Rs. 60.178 million, but even nine years after that these vehicles had not come under the government's registration.
That means, the vehicles have been misused and used with private number plates instead of white number plates, according to the OAG report.
Though the NEA had received the minimum purchase amount of the three Prado vehicles released from the government's coffer from the date of September 22, 2010 till December 17, 2018, the concerned officials were not found willing to bring their registration under the white number plates.
The Department of Transport Management, OPMCM and Home Ministry were sent letters formally to bring these vehicles under the government’s custody, but even after nine years, the concerned Ministry was not showing any willingness to do this, the OAG report stated.
In the report, Ministry of Home Affairs wrote to the OAG that the condition of Prado Jeep with registration number Ba 6 Cha 1025 is still unknown to the ministry. According to the report, such highly expensive and luxurious vehicles were first purchased under the project's name and later the same vehicles would be provided to high level political appointees without abiding by legal procedures.