CAAN’s gotta goThe worldwide coverage received by the Pokhara crash is not likely to do Nepal any good.
Introduced with the best of intentions after the 2006 political change, parliamentary hearings to vet the nominations of high officials of the state have been quite a farce. Besides the fact that informed questioning does not happen, there is practically no danger of anyone failing because of the two-thirds majority required to reject an appointment. Particularly since our lawmakers never question their leaders’ choices, and simply rubberstamp any and every one sent their way. Had a Parliament existed at the time of his appointment, even someone as crooked as Lok Man Singh Karki, the disgraced former anti-corruption czar, would have breezed through given the backing he enjoyed from the bosses of all political parties that mattered.
Unlike political appointments though, I guess for mid-level officials like the career diplomats sent off as ambassadors, the hearings are possibly more stressful. Thus, in September 2020, two of them, appointed to Berlin and Brussels, respectively, found themselves under the scanner. Of particular concern to members of the parliamentary hearing committee was the question of the European Union’s (EU) blacklist that has barred Nepali planes from flying into EU airspace since 2013. The Foreign Ministry officials were asked to outline their plans on getting us off the hook.
The duo appeared to have come prepared and sounded quite earnest that the issue would receive their highest priority with both expressing hope that Nepal would soon be removed from the dreaded list. The one going to Belgium even said he would consider the matter his “special task”. Probably anticipating such a statement, one of the Members of Parliament reminded them that previous envoys had also given similar assurances but failed.
That is correct, but where the lawmaker is absolutely wrong is in ascribing blame to the diplomats for that state of affairs.
Anyone who has followed the EU blacklist fracas over the years—centre-stage again with the recent Yeti Airlines mishap in Pokhara—would know very well that the crux of the problem lies in the commonsensical requirement that the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) be split into service providing and regulating bodies. It is there in plain English in the “List of Air Carriers Which Are Banned from Operating within the Union”, with all the Nepali airlines listed since they are “carriers certified by the authorities with responsibility for regulatory oversight of Nepal”.
Thus, if anyone is at fault, it has to be the Parliament, the Members of Parliament that comprise the legislative body, and the government. At the time the ambassadorial hopefuls were being questioned, the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority Bill and the Nepal Air Service Authority Bill had actually been introduced in the National Assembly. It took nearly a year more for the bills clear the upper house, but the erstwhile House of Representatives did not take them up for more than one year thereafter before its term came to an end. The bills are now dead.
With nearly all the safety measures determined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation having been fulfilled, all that appears to stand in the way of the EU lifting the ban is the division of responsibilities. Instead, the approach of our government has been to do zilch to get the required laws passed and instead appeal to every EU official that happens by and hope for the best.
It would be somewhat naïve to expect the crafting of new laws to automatically make the Nepali skies safer. But a start could have been made, and we would have been able to build on that. What boggles the mind is the inability of successive governments to get that done over 10 years.
After the National Assembly had passed the aviation bills, one would have expected the lower house to get cracking as well. But, as was pointed out in these pages, in March last year, the minister at the time suddenly pulled back, “explaining that some employees of the aviation regulator were opposed to the planned fragmentation of their office”. The chap who succeeded him apparently even went to the extent of declaring that CAAN would not be split at the behest of anyone.
One does wonder what imperative drives the ministers to look out for the interests of a bunch of bureaucrats instead of the country as a whole. Even the tragic death of one of their predecessors was not enough to move them. (For the record, we have had eight ministers since.) As for CAAN, all the news reporting so far points to the strong opposition within that powerful organisation to any dilution of its authority (and the perks that come with it).
The accident that killed the minister also saw the deaths of a couple of senior CAAN officials. But the vested interests within remain strong. In fact, in the last meeting with the EU officials in November 2022, CAAN argued that the split had been achieved through “the functional separation of CAAN’s regulatory and service provider roles, namely by preventing the transfer of staff between regulatory and service provider sections of the CAAN”. We can only hope that it was not meant in all seriousness and only a stop-gap measure until the parliament can resuscitate the now-dead bills.
The headline coverage received by the Pokhara crash worldwide is not likely to do Nepal any good. Once again there is scrutiny on us. And there is every reason to feel alarmed given the figures. Starting with the first in 1955, there have been a total of 104 air crashes in Nepal. More than 900 lives have been lost. Our place in the EU blacklist will surely stand for the near future. The audit report of the US Federal Aviation Administration is also expected soon, and there is little to expect the Americans to go easy on us.
For the government’s part, if the past is any guide, once the hullabaloo dies down, it will be back to business and slow pedalling will resume. As in the failure for five years to pass the law adopting the Montreal Convention 1999 to replace the earlier Warsaw Convention 1929. This singular inaction meant that the families of air crash victims will continue to receive just $20,000 in compensation instead of $100,000.
It has been reported that opposition to the Montreal Conventions provisions is stiff from domestic airlines. It would serve their business better to use the heft they appear to wield to push the government to bring in the reforms as asked for by the EU. Objectively speaking, the EU really does care whether we do it or not. They simply will not allow our planes to fly into its airspace, and also will not allow the chartering of Nepali airliners using their funds. The bad press from being in its bad books is what we should worry about, and the long-term impact it can have on our tourism itself. In fact, the various umbrella bodies representing the travel industry should weigh in as well to offset CAAN’s and other vested interests’ recalcitrance.
The efforts of those involved in the aviation sector appear misdirected though. One example suffices. An Australian expert on TV after the Pokhara crash was clear message that we need to take things far more seriously than we have done so far. The expert, who also happened to be associated with the eponymous airlineratings.com, said they had stopped rating Nepali airlines since they had begun receiving threats of lawsuits in response to the low ratings our companies were getting. Talk of barking up the wrong tree!