Nepal’s Curious Lumbini Imbroglio

For the second time this year a senior Nepali civil servant has quit on principle. In March, Finance Secretary Rameshwor Khanal resigned when the minister failed to support his investigation of tax fraud, and now the the chief secretary at the Ministry of Culture has followed suit.

Secretary Modraj Dotel’s departure came in the wake of revelations that a development program for the Nepali world heritage site at Lumbini was prepared without the participation of the government of Nepal. In fact, further investigation shows, the whole program may be nothing but a scam.

Development plans for Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautam, the historic Buddha, have been on the table for decades. The UN-sponsored program, designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in 1978, calls for preservation of the religious site and a 3rd century BC pillar marking the birthplace, for a zone of monasteries and meditation places, and for tasteful commercial development outside the sacred zone.

Money has poured into Lumbini since then, but there is little to show for it. Minor archaeological work was followed by the construction of a hideous cement temple at the site. Buddhist countries have erected monasteries nearby without following the plan, and the careful commercial development envisioned in the plan has failed completely. The parties involved have not accounted for even a fraction of the funds invested.

Earlier this summer, a little-known organization, the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, announced that it had signed a deal with the UN Industrial Development Organization, for a $3 billion development program at Lumbini. Because the announcement was made by a Chinese vice-chairperson of APECF and published in Xinhua, the official Chinese government newspaper, it appeared that the Chinese government was to be a major contributor the the deal.

Senior government figures in Nepal, including the culture minister, denounced the proposal, saying that the Nepal government hadn’t been consulted about the plan. The culture minister’s abrupt about face and endorsement of the deal precipitated his chief secretary’s resignation.

And subsequent investigation has shown that almost all of the original information about the plan was off-base. Both the Chinese government and UNIDO have said that they are not involved in the the deal, and APECF has been unable to explain where the $3 billion would come from, apart from vague mention of social entrepreneurs, foundations and billionaires.

The chief proponent in Nepal of the deal is Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, another co-chairperson of APECF, who said that the UN cultural body, UNESCO, was also involved. That too is apparently not true. But Nepal’s ex-crown prince, Paras Shah is, or was, involved and is, or was, another co-chairperson – in mid-August his name was removed from the foundation’s web site without explanation.

The vaporous nature of the plan and the surprising association of the Maoist leader and Paras Shah has raised many questions in Nepal. Kul Chandra Gautam, former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN says that the lack of any public information about APECF’s meetings, funding or constitution “raise[s] serious questions about the credibility of the organization.”

Gautam’s questions include: What is the purpose of APECF? Is it a foundation, a charity, or something else? Is there a chairman of the organization? Who is he or she?

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said of her adventures in Wonderland. One thing is clear though: the smell of the bribes and kickbacks possible from such a vast amount of money has caused some very senior people in Nepal to drink the kool-aid.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.