Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Government formally cancels Visit Nepal Year 2020

The government has formally suspended the much ambitious Visit Nepal Year 2020 (VNY2020) project in the wake of the Covid-19 global pandemic, though tourism minister had earlier notified informally about suspending the year-long-event till April.
Though the government has a month ago stopped all the promotional activities in and out of the country due to corona pandemic, a Cabinet meeting two weeks ago – on March 22 – has decided to suspend the campaign, according to tourism secretary Keshav Bahadur Adhikari. “I received a notice yesterday regarding the stalling of the project,” he said, adding that the VNY secretariat will also be dissolved on April 13. Twitting the cabinet decision, the secretary confirmed the government move.
Though tourism minister Yogesh Bhattarai has been claiming of observing ‘Visit Decade’, in lieu of the Visit Nepal Year plans, the Cabinet has not yet decided anything on the new plan.
The government had announced 2020 as the Visit Nepal Year with an aim of hosting 2 million tourists. But Nepal – like other countries – has gone into a nationwide lockdown, for two weeks starting March 24, to control spreading of the global pandemic that has already claimed around 40,000 lives. The lockdown has been extended until April 7 midnight.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had – on March 1 – instructed Tourism Ministry to postpone the Visit Nepal Year 2020 but the high-level committee for the control and prevention of Covid-19 – led by deputy prime minister Ishwar Pokhrel – decided to halt only the campaign until April, which has led to the confusion among tourism entrepreneurs.
Planned to revitalize tourism industry after the earthquakes of 2015, the VNY2020 campaign was supposed to re-brand tourism, apart from doubling the contribution of tourism in the economy.
Earlier, the Policy and Programmes for the fiscal year 2016-17 announced the launch of Visit Nepal Year 2018, the Tourism Ministry was forced to postpone the 2018 campaign to 2020 due to the slow pace of road and airport upgradation, apart from reconstruction of historical monuments and cultural heritage sites damaged by the devastating earthquake.
Though, a new strain of coronavirus was detected in Wuhan of China, one of the major source countries for Nepal’s tourism, late December, the first case of the virus was reported in Nepal in January. The case was declared recovered.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

As Covid-19 spreads, fears rise for people at higher risk in South Asia

As cases of Covid-19 escalate in South Asia, one of the world’s poorest and most populous regions, Amnesty International (AI) calls on the authorities there to put human rights at the heart of their responses and intensify efforts to protect marginalised and vulnerable groups at higher risk, including daily wage earners, people displaced by conflict, health workers and prisoners.
The Covid-19 pandemic is poised to break into thousands of cases in South Asia as more governments across the region this week imposed strict lockdowns and curfews amid fears the virus will strike densely populated areas, overwhelming woefully inadequate healthcare facilities and devastating livelihoods across a region where more than 600 million people already live in poverty, reads a press note issued by the AI.
“As the number of Covid-19 cases in South Asia soars, the region’s leaders must pay special attention to the most vulnerable and marginalised in this crisis,” South Asia Director at Amnesty International Biraj Patnaik said, adding that they need to protect the workers for whom staying at home means losing their livelihoods, people who lost their homes in conflicts and now languish in overcrowded camps, prisoners squeezed into cells with several others, and, not least, the valiant doctors and nurses who have never had the resources they need and are now putting their own health at risk to save others.
The Covid-19 crisis in South Asia has been exacerbated by a failure of the authorities in South Asia to provide accessible, accurate and evidence-based information about the virus, how people can protect themselves, and what the government is doing to help them.
Some senior government officials in different countries in the region have, in recent weeks, either played down the crisis, suppressed information about its true scale, or, in the most damaging cases, provided false information about the effect it has – undermining the effectiveness of any public health response and potentially their right to health.
People living in rural areas, where literacy rates are low and access to health care severely limited, are particularly affected by a lack of reliable information about Covid-19.
“States have a responsibility to provide information about COVID-19 that is accurate and evidence-based, that reaches people in languages they understand through mediums they can easily access,” Patnaik said, adding, “At the same time, there must be a concerted effort to counter misinformation about the virus that could harm people and to protect marginalised communities from stigmatization.”
Authorities across South Asia have a responsibility towards not just their own citizens, but all individuals within their jurisdictions – including refugees and asylum-seekers.
South Asia has one of the highest populations of refugees in the world, including three million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan and more than a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
“For people displaced by conflict, social distancing is not an option, health care is not easily available, and basic necessities are a daily struggle,” he said, adding that states have an obligation to not just ensure they are included in the response to the Covid-19 crisis but to address their particular needs.
The vast majority of workers in South Asia earn their living in the informal economy, often depending on daily wages. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the informal sector ‘accounts for 80 per cent of total employment’ in South Asia.
They include street vendors, sanitation workers, drivers, construction workers, cleaners, tea plantation workers, fisherfolk, porters, cooks, and domestic workers, many of whom are internal migrant workers and live far away from their families.
As lockdowns come into force, they will overwhelmingly be denied their means of earning a livelihood. In an economically low-income region with limited social security systems in place, they do not have an adequate – or, in many cases, any – social safety net to fall back on. In Sri Lanka last week, as a curfew was being imposed, queues formed outside pawn shops, highlighting the dire circumstances already hitting people.
Some countries in South Asia, including India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, this week announced economic stimulus packages, but these have been chiefly targeted at industries. There is a need for specific measures aimed at people working in the informal sector in line with the right to social security so that they can realize their right to an adequate standard of living.
“No one should be forced to make the pernicious choice between starvation and infection. South Asia’s economies depend on the daily toil of workers who are forced to seek their living in insecure and often inadequate working conditions,” Patnaik said, adding that states must protect their livelihoods as best as they can during this crisis. “In the long term, international solidarity will be needed for a recovery and it is a global pandemic and it needs a global solution.”
Every one of South Asia’s eight countries has one of the lowest numbers of physicians per capita, according to the World Bank. It ranges from 0.3 physicians per 1,000 people (Afghanistan) to just one physician per 1,000 people (Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka). At the best of times, there are too few healthcare workers with too few resources.
Health workers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan are already raising concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment available to them as they treat patients infected with Covid-19.
South Asia’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded. In Bangladesh, there are more than twice as many prisoners as there is capacity. More than 70 per cent of the country’s prison population is still awaiting trial. In Nepal, the occupancy rate is more than 150 per cent, with more than three times as many prisoners as there is capacity in some prisons.
Prisoners are also often subject to inhumane conditions, including poor ventilation and sanitation that put their health at risk. Earlier this year, a Pakistani judicial inquiry commission highlighted the limited access to health care in prisons, reporting that 1,823 inmates are suffering from Hepatitis, 425 from HIV, and 173 from tuberculosis – all contracted in prison.
In Sri Lanka, two prisoners were killed, and others injured, by prison guards last week when protests related to Covid-19 flared at Anuradhapura prison. Pakistan this week reported its first positive case of Covid-19 in a prison at Camp Jail Lahore, where there are nearly three times as many prisoners as capacity – the majority of them still awaiting trial.
Under international human rights law and standards, the authorities must ensure prisoners have prompt access to medical care and enjoy the same standards that are available in the community, including when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of people infected with Covid-19.
Some of South Asia’s countries have taken welcome steps towards the release of some prisoners, including India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but these are yet to be implemented or applied consistently.
“South Asia’s prisons are a blight on the region’s conscience,” Patnaik said, adding that they are notoriously overcrowded, violent, unsanitary and lacking health care, which place inmates at high risk of infection. “Efforts should be made to urgently reduce overcrowding, including by considering release for older detainees and those who may qualify for early parole and who no longer pose a threat to public safety.”

Friday, March 13, 2020

Handwashing with soap, critical in the fight against coronavirus, is ‘out of reach’ for billions: UNICEF

Handwashing with soap, when done correctly, is critical in the fight against the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) but millions of people have no ready access to a place to wash their hands, UNICEF said today. In total, only 3 out of 5 people worldwide have basic handwashing facilities, according to the latest data. In Nepal, more than half of the population do not have access to handwashing with soap and water at households. In Nepal, 33 per cent of urban population or around 3 in 10 people do not have access to handwashing with soap and water, the report reads, adding that handwashing is also key to protect health workers from infection and prevent the spread of Covid-19 and other infections in healthcare facilities. “As the coronavirus response takes its toll on the health services in the affected countries, the practice of handwashing with soap is even more important in warding off common respiratory and diarrhoeal diseases.”
As the pandemic continues its spread, UNICEF is reminding the public of the importance of handwashing as a key prevention measure against Covid-19 and urging renewed efforts to provide access to this most basic of public health interventions around the world.
“Handwashing with soap is one of the cheapest, most effective things you can do to protect yourself and others against coronavirus, as well as many other infectious diseases,” UNICEF Director of Programmes Sanjay Wijesekera said, adding that yet for billions, even this most basic of steps is simply out of reach. “It is far from a magic bullet but it is important to make sure people know what steps they should take to keep themselves and their families safe, even as we continue our longstanding efforts to make basic hygiene and sanitation available to everyone.”
In many parts of the world, children, parents, teachers, healthcare workers and other members of the community do not have access to basic handwashing facilities at home, in healthcare facilities, schools or elsewhere. According to the latest estimates, some 40 per cent of the world’s population, or 3 billion people, do not have a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. Nearly three quarters of the people in least developed countries lack basic handwashing facilities at home.
Likewise, some 47 per cent of schools lacked a handwashing facility with water and soap affecting 900 million school-age children. Over one third of schools worldwide and half of schools in the least developed countries have no place for children to wash their hands at all. Some 16 per cent of healthcare facilities, or around 1 in 6, had no functional toilets or handwashing facilities at either points of care where patients are treated. In Nepal, 54 per cent health care facilities have no access to handwashing facilities at point of care. Availability of disinfectant at outpatient departments of health care facilities is only 59 per cent while availability of water in delivery rooms at health care facilities is 69 per cent. “Urban populations are particularly at risk of viral respiratory infections due to population density and more frequent public gatherings in crowded spaces like markets, public transport or places of worship,” it reads, adding that people living in urban poor slums – the worst form of informal settlement – are particularly at risk. As a result, handwashing becomes even more important. 

Monday, March 2, 2020

Government temporarily suspends on-arrival visa for five countries

 Taking precautionary measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus from travelers, the government has decided to halt issuing on-arrival visas to foreign nationals from five countries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, the Department of Immigration informed.

A Cabinet meeting yesterday decided that visas for citizens of China – including its Special Administrative Regions – Japan, South Korea, Italy and Iran will not be issued on arrival effective from March 10, the department confirmed. “If they wish to travel to Nepal, they will need to obtain a visa at the Nepali embassy in the respective countries,” the department said, adding that the government is monitoring the spread of Covid-19 and has temporarily stopped the on-arrival visa for only five countries. “Taking into account the global recommendations and measure of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the government has decided to temporarily suspend visa-on-arrival for the nationals of these countries effective from 10 March 2020 until further notice.

The applicants in these countries are required to submit a recently issued health certificate with the visa application to get the visa, a press note from the department reads. The government has also issued travel advisory for Nepalis in which it requests them to  avoid traveling to these countries until and unless it is really necessary.

Currently, only citizens from 12 countries – including Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Cameroon, Somalia, Liberia, Ethiopia, Iraq and Palestine – are required to acquire a visa prior to their arrival in Nepal, rest of the countries in the world get on-arrival visa in Nepal. 

With ambitious growth rate projection, NPC endorses 15th periodic plan

 With 18 more added gamechanger projects worth Rs 190 billion, a full meeting of the National Planning Commission (NPC) – chaired by the commission’s chair Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli – today endorsed the 15th five-year periodic plan.

According ti the planning commission, the 15th periodic plan has been passed based on its approach paper that was unveiled in March last year. “Implementation of development plans envisioned in the periodic plan will contribute to boost Nepal’s production base and generation of employment,” PM Oli said chairing the meeting. “The periodic plan will prove crucial to materialise the ‘Happy Nepali, Prosperous Nepal’ slogan,” he claimed, directing the planning commission and government agencies to focus on implementation of provisions included in the periodic plan.

With ambitious development and growth targets, the periodic plan includes 22 ongoing national pride projects, some 18 new transformative projects and 177 high priority projects, though none of the ongoing national pride projects have satisfactory performance. 

Though, it seems impossible due to coronavirus pandemic, the 15th periodic plan has set a target to achieve a minimum average economic growth of 9.4 per cent per annum in the next five years. Though the draft of the 15th periodic plan has set a target to achieve a minimum average economic growth up to 10.1 per cent per annum in the next five years.

Likewise, it has set the target to raise the annual per capita income to $1,585 from the existing $1,047 within the next five years. Earlier, in the 14th five-year plan, the commission had expected the per capita income of $ 1,047 by the end of periodic plan. In the next 25 years, the government has set a target to raise per capita income to $12,100.

Likewise, the periodic plan also envisions agriculture sector growth of 5.6 per cent per annum in the next five years, while the industrial sector growth is estimated at 17.1 per cent per annum. “The services sector is expected to witness 9.9 per cent growth per annum in between fiscal years 2019-20 and 2023-24,” it reads, adding that the contribution of the services sector in the gross domestic product (GDP) can reach 57.6 per cent by fiscal 2023-24. “Likewise, the contribution of the agriculture sector and industrial sector in the national GDP can reach 22.1 per cent and 20.3 per cent, respectively.”

Likewise, the current poverty rate at present stands at 18.70 per cent and the 15ht five year plan has set a target to reduce the poverty rate to 9 per cent, whereas the literacy rate will be increased to 99 per cent from current around 70 per cent, the 15th periodic plan reads.

During the meeting, the government has also claimed that it is close to achieve the goals set in the 14th periodic plan. The meeting also discussed on developing human resources, create employment opportunities, decrease poverty rate, accelerate development in various works of infrastructure and focus on essential things like health, education, environment, food and social security.

Due to spread of global coronavirus cases across the globe, there is a doubt that the commission is able to complete all the targets on time. Bu the planning commission vice chair Pushpa Raj Kandel is more optimistic that the targets can be achieved on time with the support from all stakeholders.

NAC flies to Narita despite apex court order

 The national flag carrier today started its commercial flight to Narita in Japan today ignoring the Supreme Court’s order. The apex court has directed the government to halt air service to and from coronavirus infected countries in the wake of global pandemic.

The NAC flight to Narita – carrying some 234 passengers from Nepal – flew to Narita today and returned with 265 passengers. A jumbo team of government officials travelled to Narita on its inaugural flight. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation had announced yesterday that no formal programme would be conducted during the inaugural flight on the Kathmandu-Narita route.

Nepal Airlines Corporation spokesperson Archana Khadka defended the decision to go ahead with the Narita flight. “The corporation had been working to launch commercial flight on this route for a very long time and tickets were already booked for the inaugural flight,” she said, adding that the corporation had not received any objection letter or notice regarding flight operations to Japan. “However, the NAC will halt flights after receiving formal order from the apex court.”

NAC has started its commercial flights to Narita, shifting its service from Osaka as Narita is economically more viable than Osaka. NAC had halted flights to Osaka on February 27.

Meanwhile, the Home Ministry has directed all the concerned authorities to suspend the on-arrival visa issuance to passengers travelling from five countries including China, South Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy from March 10.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Nepse preparing to extend share trading hours

 Nepal Stock Exchange (Nepse) is preparing to extend the share trading hour.

Currently, the share market sees trading from 11am to 3pm – for 4 hours – from Sunday to Thursday.

However, the Nepse is planning to extend the trading time by one hour to five year. The Securities Board of Nepal (Sebon) has asked – writing a letter – Nepse to extend the share trading time by an hour from 10:30 am to 3:30 pm to make it five hour.  

The regulatory body of the capital and commodities market has asked the Nepse to extend half an hour in the beginning and ending, informed the Nepse that has already started preparations. “We have held several rounds of discussions on the issue and will soon finalise procedure,” chief executive officer of Nepse Chandra Singh Saud said, adding that it will take some time to manage the CDS and Clearing software to make it compatible with the Nepse software for settlement of shares.

Nepse can extend the share trading hours only after holding consultations with YCO – the company that developed software for both Nepse and CDS and Clearing – the Nepse informed.

Removal of border charges should top Nepal-Bangladesh trade talk agenda

 As the government is preparing negotiation on a preferential trade agreement (PTA) with Bangladesh, experts suggested to persuade Bangladesh to remove an array of duties and charges that it levies over and above basic customs duties on products of export interest to Nepal

Holding discussion at a programme organised jointly by the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies (MoICS) and South Asia Watch on Trade, Economics and Environment (SAWTEE) here today on Nepal-Bangladesh trade and connectivity, they also suggested Nepal not to ignore the Bangladeshi market.  

“Given the consistently high economic growth rate recorded by Bangladesh, the huge size of its economy, its geographical proximity to Nepal, and its substantial amounts of imports of agricultural and food products of export interest to Nepal, Nepal cannot ignore the Bangladeshi market and therefore must enter into a PTA with it to boost Nepal’s exports to this market,” said chairman of SAWTEE Dr Posh Raj Pandey, on the occasion.

A PTA is particularly necessary to remove an array of high tariff and para-tariff barriers in Bangladesh on goods of export interest to Nepal, he said, suggesting that Nepal seek concessions on tariffs and other duties and charges on at least 76 agricultural and food products identified by a SAWTEE study as having high export potential, with a focus on 18 products for which Bhutan already gets tariff- and para-tariff-free access to Bangladesh under a bilateral agreement between the two countries. Pandey also noted that beginning in 2013, Nepal’s trade balance with Bangladesh shifted into negative territory from a surplus. The SAWTEE study also recommends including a provision for a mutual recognition arrangement in the PTA to guard against the possibility that standards-related and technical regulations in one county might hurt exports of another as bilateral trade grows.

While basic tariffs in Bangladesh average some 25 per cent on agricultural and food products of interest to Nepal, para-tariffs raise the total border tax rate to more than 90 per cent on key products.

A Nepali team is departing to Bangladesh for negotiators soon.

“Nepal’s priority should be to get concessions on products where Bhutan has already secured concessions from Bangladesh,” vice president of Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) Kishore Pradhan said, adding, “Delays in releasing letter-of-credit payments from the Bangladeshi side should also be addressed.”

Likewise, president of Federation of Women Entrepreneurs’ Association of Nepal (FWEAN) Rita Simha noted that there is high demand in Bangladesh for amresho, ginger, cardamom and tea. She also urged the government to facilitate standards-related certification of these products to enable their access to the Bangladeshi market.

Joint Secretary at the MoICS Navraj Dhakal, said that the government has its sights set on securing concessions on around 20 products. “The goal is to have a ‘package deal’ that addresses not just tariff barriers but also para-tariff barriers, besides issues concerning standards, customs valuation and business visa, among others,” he added.

Likewise, former secretary at the MoICS and trade expert Purushottam Ojha, on the occasion, suggested that connectivity issues be included in agreement, and recommended that the government go for an early harvest that will yield tariff and para-tariff concessions on priority products.

On the occasion, incumbent secretary at the MoICS Baikuntha Aryal said that the ministry is cognizant of the need for setting a firm timeline for the implementation of points agreed during different phases of negotiations. “Focusing on select priority products, the government will press for time bound implementation,” he added.

Traders exporting to Bangladesh called for a provision for visa-on-arrival for Nepalis entering Bangladesh via the land route. Pointing out that the Fulbari-Bangalabandh route, originally meant for Nepal-Bangladesh trade, has become congested as it now has to also serve Bhutan-Bangladesh trade and India-Bangladesh trade, with Bhutanese cargo getting priority in clearance, they also urged the government to ensure better transit-transport connectivity between Bangladesh and Nepal.

Lawmakers demand to save central bank autonomy

 The parliamentarian today urged the government to maintain the central bank’s autonomy.

Speaking at the lower House of parliament today, the lawmakers also asked the government to remove the clause in the proposed amendment bill of Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) Act that will affect the autonomy of the central bank adversely.

The government is amending the NRB Act 2002. The government has tabled the amendment bill of Nepal Rastra Bank Act 2002 at the parliament. The amendment bill has a clause that the government holds discretionary power to sack the governor and deputy-governor of the central bank, on the basis of their performance. Likewise, the bill also has it that the central bank will have to invite an outsider in its internal audit system.

The lawmakers have been opposing the government’s attack on autonomy of the central bank, the regulatory authority of the banks and financial sector and also a financial advisor of the government. Opposing the amendment the lawmakers claimed that the government is trying to damage the financial system. “If the government is allowed the right to sack the topmost positions of the central bank, it will be not only a threat to work independently but also create financial instability,” said another Nepali Congress lawmaker Minendra Rijal, speaking at the lower House.

Likewise, another lawmaker from the opposition Nepali Congress Gyanendra Bahadur Karki also said that the central bank could work as a good regulator, only if it given autonomy from the intervention of the government. 

The central bank’s autonomy has helped boost the healthy financial sector in the country, he added.

It is said that incumbent finance minister Dr Yuba raj Khatiwada, who was the central bank governor before becoming minister, is one of the architects of the amendment bill. When he was ccentral bank governor, Dr Khatiwada lobbied for the central autonomy but as he became finance minister, he wants the central bank to become a lame duck.

Another Nepali Congress lawmaker Dibya Mani Rajbhandari urged the government to bar the board of directors of the central bank from taking loans from any commercial banks to prevent conflict of interest. Rajbhandari also asked the government for strict action against the defaulters. The banks and financial institutions are the custodians of the public money. The central bank autonomy – that has stopped the government interference in the banking and financial system – has not only saved many banks and financial institutions but also the depositors as it can take action according to the situation without government’s interference. However, the incumbent government is hell bent to destroy the financial system, the lawmakers blamed.

Likewise, the government – through the proposed amendment bill – has also sought to set an upper age limit of 65 years for any person to become a board director along with the minimum age requirement of 35 years. Earlier, there was no age ceiling for nomination or appointment as the board director in the central bank. The government is – through the amendment bill – trying to take control of the financial system in the country, blamed the lawmakers.

However, the finance minister Dr Yuba Raj Khatiwada claimed that the government has targeted to make the central bank more accountable along with empowering it as an autonomous body. “The autonomy without assuming accountability will give rise to anarchism,” the minister, who was the central bank governor, said, adding that the government has incorporated the age limit of the board of director to comply it with the retirement age set by the government. Likewise, answering the lawmakers, he claimed that the amendment bill has removed the cooling period of the executive director of the central bank. “The bill has sought to maintain the uniform cooling period of two years for all the executives of the central bank.”