EDITORIAL: Nepal’s decision to scrap security printing tenders will have major repercussions

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) – The government needs to explain why it thinks an expensive and opaque government-to-government deal is better.

As the government bungles another important decision—this time around the future of Nepali passports—there is a significant probability that the people will suffer. The recent decision to scrap a global tender for passports is worrisome. The move coincided with the cancellation of another bid for excise duty stickers. Not only do the recent tender cancellations tarnish the country’s reputation internationally, but it also leaves a significant question mark on how the government will cope once the current stock of these two security-laden certificates runs out. The situation pertaining to passports is especially worrisome: Nepal only has about 750,000 machine-readable passports left, with the possibility of purchasing more expeditiously from the current supplier near impossible. Now, the government must answer why it chose to cancel such vital tenders. Moreover, it must explain why it deems a more opaque government-to-government deal, and the setting up of an in-house security printing facility, more prudent than securing the necessary supplies through a global competitive bidding process.

The entire episode stems from the KP Oli-led administration’s obsession with setting up a security printing facility domestically to handle all of Nepal’s needs. The idea is to reduce the country’s reliance on services abroad, as Nepal currently spends billions abroad on printing everything from banknotes to passports. When the plan was first floated, it was Germany that showed interest. However, with disagreements arising with the German side over financing arrangements, talks seem to have moved forward with the French government-owned IN Groupe, leading to the signing of a memorandum of understanding with France in March 2019.

But with such a facility costing over $300 million, it is doubtful whether there is enough business for secure documents, certificates and stickers to make the deal worth it. A five years' supply of biometric passports, also known as e-passports, through a competitive tender would cost Nepal $69 million. Moreover, it has emerged that the government is mulling a 200 million-euro deal with the French side that excludes a facility capable of printing banknotes. The entire amount will apparently be put forward by the French government as a soft loan. With the inability to print banknotes, and the interest from the loan likely to amount to a large sum, the government’s plans have become even more suspect. Why pick such an expensive option, which still leaves the printing of money (a significant yearly expense) outside Nepali hands, over a transparent and competitive bidding process?

Let’s suppose that the deal with France will eventually save Nepal money in the long run. Perhaps it could also raise nationalistic pride—what with the country’s passports and excise duty stickers being printed on Nepali soil. However, this does not cover the fact that Nepal needs modern e-passports in haste. It was not so long ago when Nepali travellers suffered a great deal due to the government’s delay in adopting machine-readable passports. The country even had to shamefully ask the International Civil Aviation Organisation for a five-year deadline extension to implement machine-readable passports. Now, while the International Civil Aviation Organisation has not mandated a deadline for e-passport implementation, over 150 countries have made the switch, making travel more tedious for Nepalis already. And with the printing facility likely to take four years to set up, Nepalis may soon be left without internationally recognised passports.

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