Tackling Passport Scam

( This article can also be found in Nepalnews.com )

There is a popular Nepali proverb which says, “Even a stream turns back in twelve years”. The essence of this saying is that usually an event gets repeated after 12 years time. Whether this proverb is hundred percent true or not may be debatable, however, looking back at Nepal’s painful chapter of history related to diplomatic passport forgery, one is forced to conclude that the above Nepali proverb cannot be false. During the post-2046 Revolution period a large number of Nepali lawmakers were found involved in rampant forgery of diplomatic passports. They earned notoriety in selling their red passports to brokers.

Many Constituent Assembly members are implicated in abusing their parliamentary privileges by selling diplomatic passports. This has reminded us of that dark chapter of history when question was also raised on wisdom of embracing West Minister-style democracy in Nepal. Generally-speaking people can make or mar the country not the system. Verily academics have still been struggling to find the perfect system of governance that suits all countries. Whether stability or freedom should have preference to the other is a pertinent issue that deserves informed discussion.

Nepal’s pre-2046 political era was certainly not ideal. There were weaknesses and the Nepali people were not happy with what was going on. Nevertheless, at that time a strong system of governance prevailed which curbed anarchy and lawlessness, if not corruption altogether. We could move around re-assuredly that the criminals would be brought to book as per the law of the land. A few examples are worth-mentioning to substantiate this observation.

At the Panchayat time a sitting member of the parliament, who wielded immeasurable influence in his constituency winning every term of election was found guilty of committing a crime. He was sentenced to jail. Passports were too forged then as brokers used to bribe the civil servants. History is testimony to the fact in the 1980s an officer and some assistant level employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were also given prison terms. They were implicated for forging passports. Though they got acquitted after several years of contesting at the apex level court, it is a different matter. The point is that once crime is committed, the accused will not be roaming scot-free as seems today.

As reported in Kantipur daily in the recent past weeks, nine members of the Constituent Assembly are under investigation for alleged crime of selling their diplomatic passports. Two of them were put in the jail following their failure to submit the bail of 1.5million rupees. Afterwards, Gayatri Sah has been released on bail. The Commission on Investigation of Abuse of Authority having concluded necessary investigation has accordingly filed the case against Gayatri Sah of Janata Dal and B.P. Yadav of Madheshi Janadhikar Forum in the court on the basis of existing Corruption Control Act. While this step from the government is commendable, regrettably a group of lawmakers belonging to Madhesi Janadhikar Forum are seemingly effortful to defame the Commission on Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Their submission of a memorandum to the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly on forming a separate body of lawmakers to investigate the allegations of passport forgery is considered to be a veiled attempt to evade the lawful action.

It will take some time to see how the ongoing investigation of passport misuse concludes. But seeing a close nexus between crime and power, one wonders if the government is willing not to obstruct the work of the Commission on Investigation of Abuse of Authority.

For the incumbent Foreign Minister the present crisis truly presents an opportunity to cleanse the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which despite being staffed by some talented persons, is still dysfunctional. The international image of Nepal has sunk to its lowest ebb, the overwhelming evidence of which is her humiliating loss of vote on the Presidency of the UN General Assembly. Losing such a post by Nepal as Chair of the Least Developed Countries’ Forum is more embarrassing. This electoral defeat is unprecedented and demonstrates the incompetence of the UN team. Could the new boss at the ministry pay attention to the problems that have crippled the organization?

To start with the MFA can take some immediate measures that will likely check misuse of the diplomatic passports to a greater extent. These are doable and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should lead the efforts.

  1. Do not issue diplomatic passports only because someone has become a lawmaker. Such sensitive documents are issued only when needed. That means no red passport has to be obtained by any member of the Constituent Assembly unless he or she has to attend a government-sponsored function abroad. It is quite easy to decide whether to issue such passport to any applicant the basis of which would be the nature and significance of the program planned for attendance. Foreign governments decline to grant visas without being satisfied that the applicant has the justified ground to visit the requested country.
  2. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should resume as in the old days the responsibility of deciding whether a particular meeting/conference/seminar/event/function/program abroad is worth-attendance in terms of national interests and also as per the protocol of the participant. The Ministry of Finance has to coordinate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in approving government funds to sponsor the participation.
  3. It has been reported that some lawmakers have possessed more than one diplomatic passport. This is not only unlawful but also a bad practice that strains the government budget. Red passports are printed with a lot of cost and their gratis issuance has to be in compliance with set regulations. This is not a privilege to anyone be it a minister or a lawmaker or a civil servant to enjoy flouting country’s law. Most of the Foreign Ministry officials hold red passports but never return to their organization upon completion of the assigned duties. All diplomatic and special passports have to be returned to the government once the official tour of duty is completed.  These passports are issued gratis. As actions speak louder than words, necessarily the Foreign Ministry personnel should be the examples to start returning the passports. Will the political boss be prepared to set an example by himself in this regard?

The media has reported further that MFA is declining to deposit the returned diplomatic passports. As an issuing authority it cannot shirk from its responsibility. Otherwise people’s suspicion about the alleged misconduct on part of the government employees in facilitating the work of the brokers involved in selling passports will be vindicated. To disprove such allegation the Foreign Minister should take the initiative and instruct the concerned personnel to perform their duties without pretension.

The aforementioned measures are not the only means to tackle passport forgery but their application can significantly reduce the criminal activities connected to diplomatic passports. Because the parliamentarians of his own political party are apparently misusing their red passports, it is morally imperative for the MFA Chief to promptly take necessary action. He can cooperate with the current investigation to find out the true criminals whoever they might be. Moreover, he has to   get things done properly through MFA concerning passports.

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