Where is the gas?
The Himalayan Times , 27 Dec 2004
It is December 7, 2004 as I write this. America remembers it as 'a day of infamy'. On this day, 63 years ago the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.
For me this is a day of infamy in Nepal. Petroleum products have yet again vanished. Throughout the day, queues of vehicles at gas stations lengthened. It is criminal at this day and age for Nepal's policy makers to repeatedly subject its citizens to this torture.
It is ironic that even as prices at gas stations worldwide decline as a consequence of a drop of US$10 per barrel in price of oil, Nepali consumers cannot fill up their vehicle tanks. How many times does history have to repeat itself before something is done?
That 'something' is getting rid of Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC). And I do mean getting rid of it in double quick time. Government has had privatization plans on the anvil for far too long. It is time for action.
NOC must be sold in a fair and transparent manner. But that alone is not enough. Care must be taken to see that it no longer enjoys any monopoly privileges.
Open up the entire oil sector - imports, distribution, and sales - to competition. Allow any company from anywhere in the world to set up base in Nepal.
It is this competition that will end the shortages, bring quality products, enhance the service at gas stations and bring gas prices in Nepal at par with the international market after adjusting for local taxes.
A major benefit of allowing unfettered competition in Nepal would be to end adulteration of petroleum products. This practice wreaks havoc on the vehicles. When companies have to protect their reputation in the open market they see to it that their gas stations sell only quality products. It is only when you have a government protected monopoly that you couldn't care less about your customers who don't have a choice.
Why does the economy of this country have to be repeatedly wracked by government mismanagement? Why is no action taken?
Whereas other countries learn fast, Nepal shows a proclivity to take an unduly long time to absorb the lesson of past failures. It should have been clear to all that NOC can't meet the expectations of the people. The citizens of this country deserve better than over and over becoming a prey of this government organization.
The US, which is the world's largest consumer of gasoline, too has faced a situation similar to what Nepal faces today. However, that was during the time of one of America's least economically savy President, Jimmy Carter. He believed in the 'Whitehouse' micro-managing everything from the distribution and pricing of oil to rescue of hostages in Iraq. He was a failure and lost the election to Ronald Reagan. Shortly after Reagan took office in January of 1981, he reversed Carter's actions.
Reagan did this by removing price controls on oil and ending the practice of allocating oil by government fiat. The results confounded Carter and his supporters. They had said that eliminating the price ceiling on oil would result in an unacceptable increase in prices people would have to pay at the pumps.
Did this happen? The results were the reverse of what Carter expected. Deregulation freed the market, ended shortages, queues at gas stations vanished overnight, and best of all the price of oil dropped.
Though prices in the US go up and down in response to international fluctuations, no President since Reagan has ever instituted government ownership or control over oil flows. And the American people have never had to queue up at pumps again.
Private companies in America are adept at fulfilling the needs of their customers. Gas stations are sparkling clean, display prices prominently and many have department stores on premises. And customers have a choice. If you don't like the service of one you can go to another. Each oil company - Texaco, Chevron, Exxon and many more - have their own or franchised gas stations.
Should the Nepali consumer not be pampered with similar levels of service and have the same choice as his American counterpart?
(The writer an economist and a proponent of free markets contributes to leading international dailies. Contact e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org )