Prime Minister Bhattarai’s New Green Coat

The Prime Minister in New York for the United Nations General Assembly 2012. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

The Prime Minister in New York for the United Nations General Assembly 2012. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

Today, the Prime Minister of Nepal Baburam Bhattara will depart for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 conference. Maybe it’s okay. After all, wrong, and outright useless, people being part of Nepal’s major environment related junkets are no breaking news. Donor agencies don’t seem to have a problem with it either. For example, can anyone explain with what authority and capacity was Charles Mendez operating in Nepal’s COP15 delegation? Or at least why one of Nepal’s lead Climate negotiators, Batu Uprety, refuses to even explain his work to the public? Until he does, he remains nothing more than Nepal’s most illusive Climate Junket extraordinaire.

And what of Baburam Bhattarai? In 2008 he had arrived in Washington DC as Nepal’s Finance Minister to attend the annual meeting of the board of governors of the World Bank. In an interview with him that at the Nepali Ambassador’s residence in DC, this columnist repeatedly asked about his views on sustainability and climate change because the Nepali Government’s central pitch to the international community that September by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal in New York (United Nations General Assembly) and the Finance Minister in DC hinged on foreign investment for large scale hydro projects. “We shouldn’t give undue importance to rumors that big hydro projects will lead to ecological degradation,” Bhattarai had explained.

By the end of the interview, the Finance Minister had dismissed both Climate Change and Sustainable Development as an ‘anti-development agenda’ and ‘imperialist propaganda.’ He expressed his staunch belief that Nepal needed to be fully industrialized at all cost and work on its economic growth rather than focus on ‘environment issues’ that hindered economic growth.

This week, that same man will stand before the global community gathered in Rio to discuss “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.” Not only that, he is scheduled to lead at least two high-level international meetings.

PM Bhattarai has been preparing for his role at Rio+ though. During his United Nations General Assembly trip last year he remarked, “Global warming is a major problem, and a fire like this spreads everywhere. Our mountains are melting. We have to pay keen attention to the environment even as we develop hydro projects in Nepal. The issue of environment has to be placed in the center.”

On June 5, World Environment Day, PM Bhattarai spoke at a public event about establishing fund to for mountain countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Funds is central to these annual climate confereces. But with what moral high ground does a Nepali official speak of that subject?

“The Finance Ministry does not have a ready-made record that shows how much money comes in and goes out for climate change projects,” reported BBC’s Navin Singh Khadka last December. “In the list of existing codes of the Classification of Functions of Government (COFOG) registered with the UN Statistics Division, 05 stands for environmental protection but none of the six sub-headings under it are climate change. Unless that fundamental flaw is corrected, the climate financing picture in the finance ministry’s records will remain blurred—regardless of the one after another environment ministry projects supported by some donors for what they call streamlining climate funding.”

Would the Prime Minister or Ministry of Finance share with the country and the international community updates on that accounting problem?

The Media in Nepal is right at fault too. How often do Nepali journalists speak to the country’s top political leaders on development issues? When was the last time a Prime Minster, or any Minister outside of the Forest and Environment Ministry, interviewed about climate change and sustainable development? Aren’t these issues central to the Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Tourism to name just a few?

It has been almost two weeks since Prime Minister Bhattarai’s visit to Rio+ was announced. If he wants to go there, for whatever reason, and if he wants to lead an international dialogue about the issues to be discussed there, perhaps he should have explained it at home first.

But he won’t. This isn’t his issue at all. His public stance on it might have changed as he has shifted from being the Finance Minister to a Prime Minister of a country that has to represent Least Developed Countries at the United Nations. But has his ideologies, and views on economic growth, changed at all?

“Harnessing Nepal’s hydro resources for Nepal’s socio-economic transformation has always been my number one economic priority,” he said at the meeting of the Nepali Investment Board few days ago that is dreaming up producing 3000MW of hydro power and bringing in $6billion investment for it. Is the country willing to have the Environment Impact Assessments of those projects made public before they are allowed to proceed?

The Nepali bureaucracy and its ‘Development partners’ who work on Nepal’s climate change issues have worked hard to secure Nepal the lead position in the Least Development Countries Coordination Group on climate change for 2013 and 2014. But who has been working to establish real benchmarks for Nepal to prove that the country is worthy of this position? If Nepal wants to “lead,” it should lead by action.

This year is the Year of Sustainable Energy. In Nepal, hydro projects have generated more enthusiasm and money than actual electricity. The PM could tell the world that he would also like to make renewable energy sources like Solar a reality in Nepal by helping to develop technologies and models such as Feed in Tariff through local municipalities.

Nepal could also tell the world that finally Electric Vehicles here will be tax exempt, subsidized by the already existing extremely high taxes levied on fossil fuel based automobiles. It’s okay even if we have 18-hour load shedding per day. The policy the PM puts in place now could be perfect to set Nepal on a more sustainable course down the road. EVs would not only make lighter Nepal Oil Corporation’s burden on the national treasury, but it would go a long way in clearing up the air quality in Kathmandu and other rapidly growing urban centers around the country and help create a whole new ‘green economy.’

What PM Bhattarai, who portrays a modern Marxist persona, could also do is meet with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who presents himself as a 21st Century Socialist. The two of them could talk ‘sustainable development.’

Below Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park there is almost 1 billion barrels of crude oil worth almost $7-10 billion. President Correa’s socialist government decided not to extract it because “to extract oil on that scale from Yasuní would lead to contamination, deforestation, extinction of cultures and destruction of social structures. It would need a vast infrastructure including roads, river ports, tracks, airstrips. Villages would have to be constructed, pipelines laid and millions of tonnes of contaminated waste buried,” then Oil Minister Alberto Acosta explained.

Taking cue, let’s have the Prime Minister call for suspension of Oil Exploration in Nepal, a project dreamed up by the World Bank in 1982, seemingly about to hit legal trouble in 2012.

There is a list of big and small actions Nepal could take to lead the way for the world. Of course, the PM will do none of these things. So why is he going to Rio?

His time in office demonstrates that the PM isn’t a junket hound by any means. He has traveled very conservatively and ignored ample opportunities for globetrotting. But he isn’t a green political leader by any means either. While he may want to meet with a few world leaders at Rio, the only meeting the PM is possibly actually interested in will be the one with the Indian delegation, far from the glares of Kathmandu and Delhi. Given the current political crisis in the country, the PM’s trip risks coming across as an unnecessary low point in his time in office. What it will be for certain is a hollow representation of Nepal’s climate change and sustainability agenda.

Originally published in Republica national daily’s Opinion page on June 18, 2012.