‘Engagement of big business house in black-marketing is deplorable’

As supply disruptions continue due to protests in the Tarai and blockade on Nepal-India border points, black-market is thriving in the country. Because of this, prices of many food items and petroleum products have gone through the roof, increasing the burden on low and lower-middle income groups. In this regard, Rupak D Sharma of The Himalayan Times talked to Eak Narayan Aryal, former chief district officer of Kathmandu, who led a team to raid warehouses of Swastik Oil Industries, one of the flagship businesses of renowned KL Dugar Group, on suspicion of engagement in black-marketing. Following the raid, five trucks of edible oil, which the company was planning to sell at rates higher than the existing market prices, were confiscated. Aryal has since been transferred to the District Administration Office in Morang.

Black-marketing is rampant in the country at present, and the government seems to be doing very little to control this malpractice. What is your take on the issue?

In Nepal, black market thrives whenever there is a crisis. We saw this during the time when the country was struck by devastating earthquakes. At that time, face masks, which used to cost Rs 40, were sold at Rs 150, and tarpaulin sheets, which used to cost Rs 1,500, were sold at Rs 5,000. We are seeing a repeat of similar incidents again as trade disruptions continue across Nepal-India border points. Certain groups are engaged in this criminal activity. These groups hoard goods to create artificial shortages in the market and subsequently raise their prices indiscriminately, creating havoc. Members of these groups include ordinary people and entrepreneurs as well. These groups are getting protection from another group. I did all I could to prevent these groups from fleecing people residing in Kathmandu district. In this regard, we have already rounded up 111 people engaged in black-marketing of petroleum products, including liquefied petroleum gas. We have also sealed seven fuel stations that had tampered dispensers to cheat customers. Since then, we have forwarded these cases to the court.

You just said there is another group that provides protection to ordinary people and entrepreneurs engaged in black-marketing. Are you trying to imply politicians are also involved in this malpractice?

Ordinary people and entrepreneurs do not dare to get involved in black-marketing without receiving protection from someone powerful. So, there is a big network operating here. This network is so powerful it does not abide by what the government bodies, including police administration, say.

People facing charges of black-marketing rarely go to jail. Does protection from the powerful always prevent public administrations from sending these people behind bars?

General people want to see those rounded up on charges of black-marketing in jail. This desire is genuine and civil servants, who get salaries from taxpayers’ money, should try to fulfil this wish. In this regard, different government bodies that oversee supplies related issues should function properly. For instance, it is Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC)’s responsibility to look into cases of black-marketing of fuel. Also, the Department of Commerce and Supply Management should conduct market monitoring activities properly. If all these bodies, including district administration offices, work effectively, black-marketing could be immediately controlled. Another thing that has to be noted is that the gravity of all the cases related to black-marketing may not be the same. For example, of the 111 people rounded up on charges of fuel black-marketing, some may have been caught with, say, 200 litres of fuel. So, the gravity of the crime is taken into account while handing over jail sentences. Earlier, district administration offices used to handle cases related to black-marketing. Now, district courts look into these matters. And we do not comment on verdicts issued by courts.

Recently, your office sealed some of the fuel stations that had tampered dispensers to rip off customers. Do you think it’s possible for station owners to engage in such an act without colluding with concerned government offices?

It is actually not our job to raid fuel pumps. In fact, the main responsibility of district administration offices is to maintain peace and security in societies where we operate. But as cases of black-marketing started rising, they started posing a threat to peace and security of districts. That’s why we had to spring into action. So the bottom line is that concerned authorities should do their jobs properly. For example, main duties of Nepal Oil Corporation are to ensure adequate supply of petroleum products, regulate the petroleum market, and take necessary actions against those trying to destabilise smooth supply of fuel. Also, NOC is the concerned body that provides operating licence to fuel stations. So, it’s NOC’s job to take action against stations trying to fleece customers. But when we conducted investigation based on complaints filed by the public, we found that seven fuel stations were dispensing five per cent less fuel. Surprisingly, these fuel stations had tampered their dispensers from the day of their establishment. We then immediately sealed those stations. Now it is up to the concerned authority to take necessary action against them.

This means these fuel stations illegally earned tens of millions of rupees, isn’t it?

Police are currently investigating the matter. But as per rough estimates, each fuel station, on average, must have amassed at least Rs 30 million per year from this act. This means they must have fleeced billions of rupees from the public.

One of the biggest raids that you conducted while serving as Kathmandu’s chief district officer was on warehouses of Swastik Oil Industries, one of the flagship businesses of KL Dugar Group. Who tipped you off on the company’s engagement in black-marketing?

It was the public, especially the locals of Jadibuti, where warehouses of KL Dugar Group are located. We received so many complaints on unnatural price hike of cooking oil, we were compelled to do something. We then started tracking activities of KL Dugar Group and found that the company, which was selling a litre of cooking oil for Rs 130-135 before the crisis, had gradually raised the price to Rs 160, Rs 180 and finally to Rs 320. What was surprising was that cooking oil, whose prices were raised, was manufactured and packaged prior to the crisis. Despite knowing this, we couldn’t immediately take action because we didn’t have concrete evidence. Later, the inflated prices started appearing on labels of the oil packets. That’s when I and chief of Metropolitan Police Range Kathmandu decided to raid the warehouses. We have sealed three warehouses of the company containing five trucks of sunflower, soybean, mustard and vegetable oil. This is the first time in Nepal’s history that warehouses of such a big business house were sealed on charges of black-marketing.

During the raid, two of the company’s employees were also rounded up. But police took more than a week to start interrogating them. Isn’t this an indication that the police are trying to or are under pressure to dismiss the case?

The main question here is how ethical was it for such a reputable business house to engage in such a deplorable act — that too, at a time when the country is reeling under a severe crisis. At such times, the company should have thought of ways to smoothen supply of cooking oil. Instead, it took the crisis as an opportunity to generate exorbitant profits in an illegal manner. Isn’t that exploitation of ordinary citizens? That’s why we raided the warehouses. During the raid, we also rounded up two employees. Since then we are under pressure, but we are not bothered about that. Currently, the police are conducting a detailed investigation into the case. You may be aware that police have issued warrant against four in this case, including, Kishan Lal Dugar, chairman of KL Dugar Group, and his son Naresh Dugar, vice chairman of the Group. After the police complete investigations, a case would be filed at the district court.

But it appears police are taking time to conduct detailed investigation, isn’t it?

The police also have to follow many procedures. Besides, this is a sensitive case and if investigations are not conducted properly, those who have to make a decision may not be able to do so. Also, the company has factories in Nepalgunj and Biratnagar and has expanded its business throughout the country. Police have to take all these factors into consideration and build a strong case. So, it might take some time, but the guilty won’t be able to escape.

Apparently, this case, many say, led to your transfer from Kathmandu District Administration Office. How does it feel?

It would be inappropriate to link the raid at Dugar’s warehouses to my transfer. I am a civil servant and transfers are common for us. I conducted the raid at Dugar’s warehouses to bring the culprits of black-marketing to book. That was my duty as a civil servant and I think I have fulfilled that responsibility. I’m happy that during my 13-month tenure here I was able to take action against around 60 people and firms, including drinking water suppliers, engaged in black-marketing.