KATHMANDU, Nov 19: Even as the erstwhile parliament was continuing debate whether to maintain or sell away the most expensive properties Nepal owns abroad, caretaker government led by Baburam Bhattarai has expedited the process to sell away multi-billion dollar worth properties belonging to Nepalese embassy in London.
A source familiar with the development said a Survey Committee formed last month by the cabinet is due to leave for the UK shortly to expedite the process apparently taking advantage of absence of parliament and almost vacant anti-graft body in the country.
Sources said the Committee has been asked to submit a detailed report on the status of embassy´s properties, determine the price that Nepal may receive and legal complications and their remedies to sell the properties within one month after it starts actual work. Though the Committee was originally set to leave the country immediately after Tihar, the visit was deferred for a few days as two joint secretaries in the Committee were transferred from their office in a recent bureaucratic reshuffle.
The Survey Committee comprises of joint secretaries, one each from Auditor General´s Office and Finance, Foreign and Law ministries. While Nepalese envoy to the UK Suresh Chalise has been named as coordinator, two other Nepalese envoys - Suresh Pradhan (Germany) and Mohan Krishna Shrestha (France) - are also the members of the Committee.
Issues like this would reach the parliament for public scrutiny when there was a functioning parliament, but the government has so far kept secret the formation of Survey Committee. Officials claimed that though the real intention behind this is to sell the properties in London, the Committee has also been asked to make a detailed study on Nepal´s properties in Bonn in Germany to divert public attention.
The embassy properties handed over to Nepal in 1938 by UK government in recognition of the dedication shown by the Gurkhas in the British Army is the most expensive property the country owns abroad. As per the bilateral agreement reached between the two governments, Nepal shall pay 100 pounds annually as lease amount for the first 25 years, 1,000 pounds for 25-50 years, 1,500 pounds for 50-70 years and 2,000 pounds a year as lease fees for 75 to 99 years.
The latest government move comes in the wake of Nepalese embassy in the UK demanding Rs 120 million for the maintenance of embassy building--- lease of which will expire after 68 years as per the renewed lease agreement with the UK government in 1980. "We would better think seriously whether we can buy similar property for the embassy in such a prime location before actually selling away the embassy building in London," said a foreign ministry official, asking to be unnamed.
Officials argue that selling away of the crown properties located in the Kensington Palace Gardens would greatly hurt the sentiment of Nepalese Gurkhas as they have special attachment and legacy to this building.
"The maintenance cost as it has been estimated does not seem to be that high for a nation. If we take into account of the cost our government may have to bear for acquiring new embassy building and apartments for diplomatic staffs including ambassador in the long run, it is in the larger interests of the country to maintain the building," said a retired diplomat, who also served at Nepalese mission in London.
The diplomat added that since it is difficult to acquire new building in the prime locations such as Kensington Palace Gardens the selling away of the existing property would mean relocating the embassy to suburb areas --- something unusual in case of the location of an embassy.
The issue whether to sell away the embassy building in London had even reached the erstwhile parliament. A meeting of the Public Account Committee (PAC) held on May 25, two days before the dissolution of the parliament, had instructed the government to first repair the properties even as the top officials from foreign ministry apprised the committee that maintenance of the building would be very expensive and process too tardy as the building was in a run-down state.
Sources said the Survey Committee has also been given responsibility to make a detailed study on the properties of Nepal in Bonn in Germany. Nearly 30,000 square feet of land including then residence of ambassador and chancery building are lying idle for over a decade after the embassy was moved to Berlin following the re-unification of the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic and subsequent shifting of the capital of the country to Berlin in July 20, 2000.