Unions set up roadblock against long stalled aviation billsThe trade unions say they fear the government will gradually privatise the airports, causing them to lose their perks and pay.
Agitating trade unions opposed to proposed legislation to split the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal into regulator and service provider have threatened to lock up the director general's office from Thursday if the bills are not withdrawn, a day after they were registered at the lower house.
The authority has been set up for fragmentation as part of the effort to streamline civil aviation and allow the implementation of safety regulations as per world standards, which is also one of the conditions of the European Commission to permit Nepali carriers to fly in Europe.
But passage of the required laws has been stalled for more than a decade due to bureaucratic obstacles at every step.
Last week, the upper house finally passed the two crucial bills, paving the way for them to be tabled at the House of Representatives, only to have the group of five trade unions set up another roadblock.
The protest is led by the Democratic Employees’ Union which is politically tied to the ruling Nepali Congress Party. It has charged that some “interest groups” passed the bills through a “back door” route.
The unions say they have launched their agitation fearing that the government will gradually privatise the airports, and that they will lose their perks and pay if the authority is broken up.
On August 2, the National Assembly unanimously passed the two bills—the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal Bill and Air Service Authority of Nepal Bill—after nearly two years since they were registered at the upper house.
“It’s a ploy to privatise Nepal’s airports in the long run. We will not let lawmakers split the civil aviation body,” said Laxman Kumar Giri, president of the Democratic Employees’ Union.
“These bills have been registered and passed without our knowledge. They did it secretly.”
Giri said it was not necessary to separate all the civil aviation functions as it would increase costs. “The government can bring back the Department of Civil Aviation if it sees the need for a separate regulator.”
The then aviation department was turned into the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal on December 31, 1998.
The two pieces of legislation will become law after they are signed by the President, and will become effective 31 days after enactment. The bills languished in the upper house for a year and a half as political squabbling engulfed the country. They were registered on February 23, 2020.
The legislation envisages integrating previous acts to eliminate conflicts and contradictions at the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, which is currently functioning as both regulator and service provider from the same office, and there is no clear demarcation between its duties and organisational structure.
“These key bills were discussed thoroughly at the Legislation Management Committee,” lawmaker Uday Sharma Poudel had told the House on June 2. “The draft bills went through 109 changes before they were presented to the upper house.”
The government has been working to separate the civil aviation body for a long time; but due to various reasons, it has not happened.
“The draft bills were discussed with all staff members, concerned aviation stakeholders and political parties before they were tabled at the upper house,” said Rajan Pokhrel, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. “It’s been over two years since discussions on the bills started.”
Pokhrel said the management had promised the unions that it would address their grievances.
Due to the delays in passing the legislation, several international aviation safety agencies have even slammed Nepal’s poor progress in ensuring air safety.
A former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal told the Post that the process to split the aviation body started after the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme was launched in May 2009 in response to widespread concerns about the adequacy of aviation safety oversight in Nepal.
Nepal has made commitments to various global aviation watchdogs like ICAO and the European Commission to end the dual functioning from the same office.
“It will send a bad message to the global aviation community and aviation watchdogs if the government backtracks,” the former director general said.
“Obviously, there are concerns among the employees, but there is a larger interest group functioning well to stop the progress on safety.” The split, however, will benefit both organisations—service provider and regulator, he said.
“It will enhance safety as monitoring will be strengthened. While for employees of the service provider, there will be ample opportunities to grow in a competitive manner.”
There are at least two international airports coming up in the near future—in Pokhara and Bhairahawa—and that will require services to be at par with international standards.
“If the regulator is separated, the employees can claim their bonuses as the service provider will become an institution to do business. The fact is that global aviation dynamics has changed a lot, and Nepal should follow suit.”
In December 2013, the European Commission imposed a blanket ban on all airlines from Nepal from flying into the 28-nation bloc after the September 2012 crash of Sita Air Flight 601 in the Manohara River that killed 19 people, including seven British citizens.
No Nepali airline was flying to the European Union then, but the commission became concerned enough to prevent them from entering the continent after a spate of air crashes in Nepal. Between 2008 and 2012, there were at least two air crashes annually.
The European Commission put Nepal on its air safety list, banning all carriers certified in Nepal from flying into the EU because of significant safety deficiencies requiring decisive action.
The protest against the proposed break-up of the civil aviation body is not new.
While private airlines have been urging the government to rush the delayed process of splitting the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal into two entities to avoid hurting the aviation sector, there have been threats from employee unions that the government will face consequences if it went ahead with the split.
On December 31, 2019, Shravan Kumar Yadav, president of the Nepal National Employees’ Union, speaking at the 21st anniversary celebration of the Civil Aviation Authority, had warned, “We will cut off the hands of the people who are planning to split the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.”
At that time, former tourism minister Yogesh Bhattarai had urged the trade unions to convince the government with logical reasons to not split the organisation.
Bhattarai had said that if the trade unions came up with convincing reasons for not separating the civil aviation body, he would halt the submission of the related bills to Parliament. But no one showed up.