With the permission given to nine private companies to import and sell petroleum product, and thus break the monopoly of the state-owned Nepal Oil Corporation only on July 10 being scrapped on July 21, the Government of Nepal (GoN) has pulled a massive joke on the Nepalese private sector, and consecutively the Nepalese consumers. On a very serious note, this is an ominous level of policy instability and has sent all kinds of negative signals to the foreign investors that have (or had) been thinking about making investments in Nepal.
If nothing else, the recent trade blockade should have taught us a lesson. Nepal was compromised largely in terms of availability of goods and services that the government has monopolised, for example, petroleum products. Another observation here will be that government to government agreements can sometimes compromise the well-being of the citizens. Because India wanted to make a statement, IOC was forced to do as per the interest of the Indian government. And since IOC is the only supplier and NOC is the only importer, Nepalese people had no way out
Had there been private companies involved in the process, they would be guided by a completely different set of interests – profit, for example. Irrespective of the government’s interests and stance, they’d be looking to make as much profit as possible. This means that the movement of goods and services would continue. And in fact, we saw this happen, too. We saw that some private individuals managed to bring in petroleum products through informal channels. This is how more than three-fourths of Kathmandu’s demand was met. It was illegal, but only because the law barred them from getting involved in the process. But people needed fuel and they were willing to pay. Now imagine if private companies were legally allowed to engage in petroleum trade! The impact of such blockade on Nepal, and most importantly, on the lives of Nepalese people could have been much less.
But now, that’s a thing of the past; and we need to focus more on the future; and we have a lot on our plates already. We need to build infrastructures, we need to invest in education, health, agriculture … you name it. And for this, we need capital to invest. And people invest when there is some prospect of return. In order to see this prospect of return, there needs to be policy stability in place. What policy stability does to prospective investors is that it gives them a sense of predictability. Irrespective of the ideologies of the government, when investors can be secure that the policy environment is going to stay stable for a certain period of time, they can at least plan their investments factoring for other constraints within that time frame and work out possible returns. But when policies change in a matter of days, investors will not bother doing all that maths. What’s worse, if you are a poor nation and need to bring in foreign investors to solve your third-world problems, you’re frankly not even going to make it to the list of possible countries in which to make an investment.