Darkness Under The Lamp
Hira Bahadur Thapa
It surprises many to learn that there is a lot of financial discrepancy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose personnel are the luckiest among all the civil servants in terms of enjoying privileges and facilities provided by the government. Moreover, their performance has most of the times been questionable as the country has been forced to suffer due to ineffectual conduct of diplomacy as exemplified by the international community’s hesitation to support our recently-promulgated constitution.
Ironically, our missions have been expanded, and more so in the recent past years, with majority of the staff members of the Nepalese Foreign Service taking charge of the embassies. This precedent has been established and adhered to in allocating at least half of the vacant seats of diplomatic envoys. This precedence has been in vogue particularly since the declaration of Nepal as a secular republic, and the latest appointment of ambassadors attests to this practice, making the non-performing career diplomats euphoric.
With maneuvering very much under play, the senior staff members of MOFA (Ministry Of Foreign Affairs) have orchestrated and executed a mechanism that ensures them the plum postings, i.e. in Western Europe, and astonishingly none of them are deputed to serve in the labour-destination countries. But empirical evidence suggests that career diplomats can serve better in labour destinations because of their familiarity with the day-to-day problems faced by our dispossessed migrant workers, a large majority of whom are unskilled and thus vulnerable to the vagaries of labour politics.
This trend of avoiding postings by the so-called career diplomats at the ambassadorial level with some exceptions in the labour destinations and in particular the Gulf region, the area with the highest concentration of our labourers, has been practised for years. The reason is obvious. One gets less financial incentives compared to the capitals of the developed countries but is required to handle a more complex set of challenges because of the migrant workers’ problems.
Some of the joint secretaries who couldn’t grab ambassadorial postings outside the Gulf have been heard grumbling that they have been sent as the “Coolies’ Sardar”, and this derogatory expression itself reflects their attitude towards the poor workers, whose employment in the hardship areas is not their choice but a compulsion to survive.
The MOFA personnel can’t be held responsible for creating such a situation alone, and it is the government which has been treating the Nepali labourers as second hand citizens, turning a deaf ear to the ongoing misuse of the Laborers’ Welfare Fund raised from the fees imposed on the migrant workers at the time of their acquisition of labour approval.
What sounds very paradoxical is that the Labour Ministry, the sole government agency to look after the concerns of the workers, just rejoices at the dispatch of delegations to the labour destination capitals and shamefully permits the use of the above fund in the name of serving the labourers.
How serious is the problem associated with the operation of the Laborers’ Welfare Fund has been exemplified by the misuse of public money in an embassy, whose ambassador has been picked up from among the MOFA senior officials with the false claim that such career diplomats would deliver services more efficiently. No more evidence is necessary to prove the notoriety of the mission head, who has approved the expenditure on entertainment and decoration of his residence, drawing money from the very fund that has been set up to cater to the needs of vulnerable workers when they face deportation or other serious problems abroad.
This scribe has been arguing for some time that our workers are not only cheated and exploited by their employers and manpower agencies but also receive misbehaviour at the hands of our diplomats, whose foreign allowances are paid from their tax. A significant number of labourers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others, were forced to lose their jobs in the past because their new passports never reached them while they were abroad due to misplacement.
Once misplaced, the applicants are deprived of passports, the reason being that the computer system would refuse to accept the application of those whose passports were once issued. In the futile attempt to obtain new passports, some workers have paid government revenue thrice at the embassy, Department of Passport and the concerned district administration office, and still were denied their travel document, and hence couldn’t resume their job where they had been employed at the time of their first application.
The great irony here is that the above problem is not the creation of those who seek public service to obtain their passport by paying the costliest fees (Rs. 15,000 per passport in the name of quick service), but of those who enjoy the salary and other privileges in hard currencies (USD/Sterling Pound/Euro) and are rewarded handsomely by offering them foreign assignments, including mission heads.
Little wonder then that the Nepali diplomats have been defying the government in paying their income taxes, which are levied taking into account their foreign allowances. The government in this regard has been dithering and not enforcing the regulations. If they are excepted in paying taxes out of the money they have earned, why should the Office of the Comptroller not approve the non-payment of such taxes by them every year? This has resulted in the huge accumulation of arrears due to this drama.
No one should be above the country’s laws, and one does not understand what prevents the government, especially the Finance Ministry, to implement the existing financial regulations that govern the use of public money. How come a pensioner is compelled to pay income tax but not the diplomats who pocket thousands of dollars in one single assignment? What logic proves that foreign allowance is not an income? Should they be asked to pay their taxes, it would be in hundreds of millions as they have postponed the payment for decades with the poor excuses that allowance is not part of income.
The Prachanda-led government has just taken over, and the people are judging how much sincerity they will display in putting their rhetoric into practice. If it can really enforce an existing government regulation that levies tax on someone’s income, and Nepali diplomats being no exception, it can deliver a commendable service to the country that needs funds to rebuild against the background of the devastating earthquake of April 25, 2015.