October 31, 2011
During the Nepalese Prime Minister’s recent state visit to India, Nepal’s Minister for Industries and India’s Minister of Finance signed a bilateral agreement for the promotion and protection of investments between the two countries (“Nepal-India BIT”/”BIT”/”BIPPA”).
The underlying objective behind the BIT seems to be the belief that the treaty would serve as a catalyst in boosting investment flows between the two countries. India’s motivations, however, may well have been influenced by the problems faced by Indian investors in the recent past. For example, Colgate-Palmolive India was forced to shut shop and sell its Nepalese subsidiary following harassement and extortion demands by rebels and Maoists. The company claimed that the local government officials in Nepal provided little support in response to its requests for greater security. In fact, a leaked US Embassy cable from Kathmandu notes that:
when he [the Colgate-Palmolive factory manager] told the local Chief District Officer (CDO) (the civil servant responsible for security in the district) that Colgate-Palmolive was considering closing the plant, the CDO responded, ‘Maybe you should.’
Drawing from the Colgate-Palmolive incident, on the general climate for foreign investment in Nepal, the cable goes on to conclude:
This is not the first time that a major high-profile foreign investor has been targeted by the Maoists. Extortion is commonplace, but many businesses choose to pay for “security.” Those who refuse to pay, like Coca-Cola and Colgate-Palmolive, complain that they receive inadequate support from the GON [Govt. of Nepal] in protecting their security and investment. During a period of economic and political instability and declining business activity in Nepal, this does not bode well for the future of foreign investment here.
In a region marred by security and stability concerns, considering India’s economic growth and physical proximity to Nepal, such fears may well have precipitated India’s desire for an investment agreement.
Is Nepal Warming up to the use of BITs?
Historically, Nepal has not been overly active in negotiating BITs with other states. It signed a BIT with France in 1983, followed by one with Germany in 1986, the United Kingdom in 1993, and Mauritius in 1999. This was followed by a lull, broken only by the signing of a BIT with Finland in 2009. The Nepal-India BIT makes it two treaties in less than three years. I am no expert on Nepal’s economic and trade policy and, as such, wonder if these recent BITs suggest that Nepal has come to see BITs as a means of attracting foreign investment, or, at the very least, improving its global image as a host state. Comments welcome.
Early Trouble for the BIT?
Meanwhile, the baby seems to have developed complications even before its birth (the BIT has only been signed, and not yet ratified, by the two countries). News reports indicate that a senior Nepalese lawyer, Balkrishna Neupane, has filed a writ at the Supreme Court of Nepal, challenging the the India-Nepal BIT. The gist of the challenge seems to be that the agreement is unequal and give undue benefits to India. Specifically, the report indicates that the challenge raises three issues:
While the agreement mentions the “air space” of India, it does not mention that of Nepal, which, Neupane argues, is incorrect as Nepal seems not to have taken into account its own air space while signing the agreement. The deal, the writ contends, has given India the right of uninterrupted use of Nepali air space while Nepal clearly does not have such rights.
Similarly, the petitioner mentions that the term “republic” has been obliterated from the accord unlike in the case of India. This, Neupane affirms, might have happened either because India has not been able to take note of the changes–republican set up in Nepal–or the Nepali side could not clarify it to India.
Neupane has taken serious exception to the provision in the BIPPA that would allow Indian companies to bring in their own workers and staff. This will not create additional job opportunities, as envisaged, for the Nepalis but will have an opposite effect.
The deal is against Labour Act, which doesn’t permit non-Nepalis to work, the writ argues. The petitioner has also challenged the compensatory provision in the agreement in case the Indian companies incur non-commercial losses.
Apparently, the hearings will commence on Wednesday (November 2, 2011).
At least one Nepalese author (Sapkota), however, suggests that the opposition to the BIT is based on “misinformation and faulty comprehension of the scope and depth of the agreement”, and is politically motivated. In his opinion:
While the private sector has openly welcomed BIPPA, selfish political leaders are politicizing it just to make themselves heard. For instance, former Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal rebuked the government for signing BIPPA, which he thinks is not in our national interest. He seems to be so lost in the dirty political game that he forgot what was mentioned in Economic Survey 2009/10 published by the Ministry of Finance during his tenure as PM.
It stated that “a Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement is signed with India to promote Indian Investment in Nepal, while preparation is being made to continue such agreements with other countries as well” (page 187). This shows how poor our leaders like Khanal are in understanding economic issues and also remembering what they officially endorsed while at the helm of power. Similarly, some influential leaders have been arguing that BIPPA is against the interest of our country and the workers. Their argument is that BIPPA will increase Indian dominance and erode rights of domestic workers.
These arguments are senseless, baseless and outright illogical. If BIPPA is against our national interest, why did we not hear loud outcry of this intensity when Nepal signed BIPPA with other countries? Importantly, the self-centered leaders opposing BIPPA should explain how exactly Nepal was dominated and workers’ rights eroded by signing such agreement with five countries before it was done with India. In our investment strapped economy, more investment is definitely a good thing and is in our national interest because it will lead to more jobs, revenue and potentially stimulate growth.
I will try to post an analysis of the BIT itself soon, but in the meanwhile would love to hear more on this from our Nepalese readers.