Ashok Kumar Baidya is the president of Birgunj Chamber of Commerce & Industries (BiCCI). Baidya who has been into trade and business for about the past four decades is also the vice-president of Shalimar Group, one of the major business houses of the country, and also a member of the SAARC Chamber of Commerce. He has been actively involved in the activities of BiCCI for the past two decades. In an interview with Om Prakash Khanal of New Business Age, Baidya, whose two-year term at BiCCI will end on January 10, 2015, shed light on a number of issues including his achievements as BiCCI President, progress on the concept of Greater Birgunj, problems faced by the industries in the Birgunj industrial corridor, among others. Excerpts:
Your term as BiCCI President will soon come to an end. How do you assess your two-year term? Are you satisfied?
Birgunj is a major industrial and financial hub and entry point of the country. In this context, it is a matter of pride for me to lead BiCCI which represents the Birgunj city. I would say that it was a great opportunity that came my way. During my two-year term as BiCCI President, I got the opportunity to take forward the issue of development of not only Birgunj but also the entire trade and industry sector. During these two years, we have done several emulative works. We were able to create several bases which make us optimistic for the future. Here, I must say that this would not have been possible with my own efforts alone; this was possible because of the cooperation and support of all office-bearers and members of the executive committee of BiCCI. In short, I am satisfied with my two-year term and its achievements. However, I don’t think my responsibilities end with the end of my tenure.
Which particular points or achievements give you special satisfaction?
Perhaps everyone has felt the need for rapid economic development of the country. However, economic development hasn’t taken the expected pace due to the political stalemate. In this context, it was necessary to seek common commitment from the top leadership of the major political parties on the agenda of economic development and prosperity of the country. So, during my term, we invited five former prime ministers to Birgunj and made them sign a document titled the “Roadmap for Economic Revolution: Vision 2080” which comprises 12 different points of economic development. The signatories of this document are still in the leadership position of the major political parties. Before this, we convinced the leaders of seven trade unions to sign a 19-point common commitment for industrial peace in the Bara-Parsa Industrial Corridor. Thus, the trade union leaders expressed commitment to declare the corridor an area free from bandhs and labour strikes. Similarly, to promote local industries and trade, we organized a Nepal-India trade fair in collaboration with Minds Nepal. BiCCI also invited the Nepali and Indian parliamentarians representing the areas along the Indo-Nepal border and made them sign a 15-point common commitment for mutual development. This is expected to link the possibilities seen in the areas along the Indo-Nepal border to economic development. Similarly, BiCCI and India’s Raxaul-based Nepal-India Friendship Association signed a common understanding for bilateral development.
You continued to move forward the concept of Greater Birgunj after being elected the BiCCI President as well. Where has this concept reached now?
The concept of Greater Birgunj includes the plan to make this city the financial capital of the country. We have moved this concept forward at various levels. The actual motive behind inviting five former prime ministers to Birgunj and asking them to sign the 12-point declaration, too, was to move this concept forward. Similarly, we have been successful in getting commitment from the Constituent Assembly (CA) members representing the Bara-Parsa area to move forward the concept of Greater Birgunj. These CA members have expressed commitment to create pressure for implementing this concept. We have also initiated a campaign called Good Morning Greater Birgunj. A road and sewerage project funded by the Asian Development Bank has been initiated in Birgunj. This project, too, is an initiative taken to realize the concept of Greater Birgunj.
As you mentioned earlier, five former prime ministers of the past two decades signed the 12-point commitment for the economic development of the country at the Nepal Leadership Summit organized by BiCCI. Do you find their parties living up to those commitments?
This is a major issue related with our development expectations and the political characters who lead the country. The agenda of economic development has taken a backseat because of the lack of political will for the same. The political parties should have endorsed the commitment expressed by their top leaders. But this hasn’t happened. Elections to the second CA were held after the former prime ministers made the 12-point commitment. But this commitment was nowhere mentioned in the election manifestos of their respective parties. In theory, the politicians agree that economic development is a must but in practice, their behaviours contradict this. This is a serious problem of our politicians. However, we have been reminding the signatories of the 12-point declaration of their commitment.
Any plans that you couldn’t implement though you wished for them?
Wishes and needs are limitless. I feel that two years time is not enough to create a strong basis for the economic development of Birgunj and the surrounding areas. There are some plans which I couldn’t implement or complete. I had planned to accomplish the task of declaring Birgunj the financial capital of the country, as envisioned by the concept of Greater Birgunj. Similarly, we couldn’t accomplish the task of declaring the Birgunj-Pathlaiya corridor as an industrial corridor meeting the desired standards. We had drawn the attention of the state towards providing alternative ways to address the energy crisis in the corridor. However, we haven’t achieved the desired success in this regard. We had submitted the concept of industrial drain to the government for the long-term solution of industrial pollution. However, this concept is yet to be implemented. Similarly, we had drawn the attention of the government bodies concerned towards resuming the operation of Birgunj Sugar Factory and Agricultural Equipment Factory which remain closed for a long time. But this hasn’t happened so far. It seems the government is not as serious as expected towards these issues. However, we should continue our efforts.
Based on your experience as BiCCI President, what do you think are the major problems facing the Birgunj industrial corridor?
We had said that the Birgunj-Pathlaiya area should be declared an industrial corridor. But that hasn’t happened so far. As industries and settlements are at the same place, the industries face resistance and protests from the locals from time to time. The pace of building a special economic zone (SEZ) at Simara of Bara district has been very slow. As a result, new investment possibilities are being wasted. Energy crisis has been a long standing problem. No industry has been able to operate to its fullest capacity due to the energy crisis. Labour problem, too, is a great challenge of this area. The trade unions which are affiliated to various political parties haven’t followed their commitment. The government has prepared a draft of the new Labour Act but it is entangled in disputes. Such essential laws need to be introduced at the earliest possible.
What are the major problems facing the country’s business community in general?
Political instability is the major problem. Businesses still face the terror of forced donation. The number of incidents of forced donation may have decreased but it has not stopped. Investment in trade and business is not safe due to bandhs and strikes. This is a challenge not only for the business community but also the economy as whole. The state’s attitude towards the business community is yet to become positive. This is the biggest irony. To put it bluntly, the root of all these problems lies in the ongoing political uncertainty. Political instability has made all other sectors unstable. There are countries which have made economic progress despite political instability. However, we have not been able to emulate them.
Birgunj is also the major trade and transit point of the country. You have watched the trade through Birgunj take place for years. What do you suggest to streamline the customs procedures?
There are problems in the valuation of the imported goods. The valuation process of imported goods is neither scientific nor transparent. More often than not, the valuation is based on the discretion of the customs officials. This has affected trade competition. Government officials don’t trust the importers. The customs officials don’t accept the invoices produced by the importers. This is a result of the lack of trust on the importers. According to existing provisions, the government can buy the imported goods if it thinks that they are under-invoiced. But these provisions are neither practical nor effective.
You often talk about promoting and facilitating Indo-Nepal trade. But the trade deficit with India has been increasing every year. How can Nepal lower the trade deficit with India?
Increasing production and exports is the only way to decrease the trade deficit with India. However, what we produce and what we export is a crucial issue here. For this, we need to devise policies based on our production and export possibilities. We should focus on the commercialization of agriculture, tourism and herbs production. These areas can be a good source of income for the country. Our water resources could be another source of income for us. If we can produce hydropower and export it to India, then we can significantly decrease our trade deficit with India. Petroleum import is a major reason behind our trade deficit. If we can produce enough hydroelectricity, then we can lower the petroleum import. In this context, some agreements reached with India, for example the power trade agreement, are positive. We should give continuity to such efforts.
It is said that now you are eyeing at FNCCI leadership. Is that true?
After working at various levels of BiCCI, I eventually got the opportunity to lead this organization. I think that the opportunity to lead is based on the needs of time. As far as leading the FNCCI is considered, I haven’t thought about it so far. However, I will definitely give it a serious thought if an opportune moment for the same arrives.
What would you like to suggest to your successor?
BiCCI has to fulfill some specific responsibilities besides addressing the common challenges of the trade and industry sector. These include making Birgunj the financial capital of the country, declaring the Birgunj-Pathlaiya corridor an industrial corridor and strongly lobbying for the completion of infrastructure development in areas around Birgunj. The new leadership of BiCCI needs to make constant efforts to realize these goals. Besides, the new BiCCI leadership should take ownership of the achievements made so far and focus on completing the ongoing projects.