KATHMANDU, Jan 24: It´s around 6:30 pm on January 7. In the pitch-black darkness, a black SUV moving at a moderate speed leaves the main road near Green Tara Nursing Home in Bhainsepati, Lalitpur and takes a left turn to enter a driveway.
Suddenly, the vehicle receives a slight jolt. The driver pulls up the SUV and tries to take stock of the situation. It turns out two motorcycles had just bumped into the vehicle´s rear.
These kinds of incidents are not unusual on the streets of the Kathmandu Valley, where many bikers are reckless. So the driver decides to move on, considering it a minor slip-up.
But to his surprise around six masked men wielding cricket bats emerge on the scene and start smashing the windscreen. They then barge toward the rear doors of the vehicle.
Their target is Rajan Singh Bhandari, the CEO of Citizens Bank International, who is seated on the back of the SUV.
"I was startled at the moment," says Bhandari recollecting almost every passing second of that incident. "I didn´t know how to respond."
Within seconds, the masked men break the windows of rear doors and take jabs at Bhandari with the bats.
"In retaliation, I pushed them backward to avoid getting hurt," says Bhandari, who is also the president of the Nepal Bankers´ Association. The attack continues for a few more seconds.
Then a motorcycle enters the driveway and stops at a distance of around 100 meters from where Bhandari´s SUV is located. This motorcyclist reaches into his pockets, takes out a cell phone and makes a call.
A little later, another car arrives on the scene. Noticing something was wrong, the driver keeps the headlight on. This breaks the darkness and startles the attackers. They flee the scene, not before throwing a bottle filled with petrol into the boot of the SUV.
Within minutes, police arrive on the scene. Apparently, the motorcyclist who had arrived later is an employee of Citizens Bank and had called the Police Emergency Number -- 100 -- after witnessing the assault on Bhandari´s vehicle.
"I was lucky I survived unscathed," Bhandari says with a wide smile on his ever-smiling face.
Since that time, some sort of calmness has been restored to his life. But it´s an uneasy one.
"The question of who ordered that attack and why still bothers me, as I had never received any kind of threat from anyone prior to the incident," Bhandari says.
So far he has not received a formal reply to his query, as the police are yet to round-up people involved in the assault. But many suspect the assault was launched not only to terrify Bhandari but the entire banking sector, one of the few booming sectors of late.
Others running various businesses have also become victims of assaults and abductions, although the exact data on such cases are not available.
"Businesses are soft targets, so criminal gangs usually don´t hesitate to resort to violent means to extract money. The situation is even worse in the Tarai where various gangs have set up bases," says Pashupati Murarka, a vice-president of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), the largest umbrella body of the private sector.
Although he acknowledges a drop in the number of such criminal acts lately, he says "the threat to the business community continues".
As far as recent history is concerned, every government that has led the country has laid out plans to fix the fractured economy. They engage in the ever fashionable chatter of mobilizing domestic and foreign investment to create jobs, raise people´s living standards and make the country economically prosperous. But turning that dream into reality has always remained a challenge as security is a major concern for investors, both domestic and foreign.
Of course, there are other challenges as well, like power shortage, inadequate infrastructure, less productive workforce and labor-related problems, but security tops the agenda for many investors because it threatens their very existence.
"This kind of threat usually creates a sense of insecurity. The indirect cost of such fear on a firm and the economy is very high," says senior economist Professor Dr Bishwambher Pyakuryal. "In this regard, the government must be proactive and should not wait for people to take to the streets to bring the culprits to justice."
Many had thought that the entry of the Maoists, who waged a decade-long insurgency, into the political mainstream in 2006 would resolve many of the problems related to security.
To a large extent it did, as cases of businesspersons losing lives for not complying with the demands of various groups are rare these days. Yet criminal gangs continue to operate in the Tarai, while those in power issue soft threats, like donation requests, to extract money out of the business community.
Earlier this month, police arrested six on the charge of abduction of Narayanghat-based businessman Damodar Tiwari. Just recently the Mohan Baidya-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist demanded millions of rupees from the business community to hold their general convention. Many complied as threats of severe action were issued, according to the FNCCI.
And only a few days ago the ruling UCPN (Maoist) party dropped a bombshell on the business sector by launching an extortion drive on the pretext of raising funds for its general convention which is expected to cost around Rs 50 million.
"It´s not new for the business community to face donation demands from political parties," says a senior FNCCI member on the condition of anonymity. "But compared to what other political parties ask for, the amount demanded by the Maoists is usually eight to nine times higher. They also reach almost every member of the business community, unlike other the political parties, who are selective. This creates terror."
What is more disconcerting is that in case any businessperson fails to fulfill the demands, the individual has to live in constant fear, according to the FNCCI member. "That´s why many simply fork out the money to keep industrial relations intact," he says.
At a time when firms, especially those involved in manufacturing, are already not being able to operate in full capacity due to problems like power shortage and emergence of labor-related problems, the fear factor puts more strain on the companies. Says Dr Pyakuryal: "These problems ultimately hit production, forcing the country to spend more on foreign goods."