Govt asks irrelevant questions to fire GautamSpeculations that the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation had harboured ill will against the head of the aviation sector regulatory body while seeking clarification from him have turned out to be true, as the government body has acknowledged that it made a mistake by asking irrelevant questions.
Rupak D. Sharma
Speculations that the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation had harboured ill will against the head of the aviation sector regulatory body while seeking clarification from him have turned out to be true, as the government body has acknowledged that it made a mistake by asking irrelevant questions.
The ministry had sought clarification from Sanjiv Gautam, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (Caan), on 11 different issues around 10 days ago. The motive of this move, according to sources, was to sack him before his four-year term expired.
The ministry, in a statement issued on Sunday, said a ministerial-level meeting held on September 12 had decided to seek clarification from Gautam, as he had failed to “meet some of the targets mentioned in the performance contract” signed with the ministry around a year ago.
“But the letter contained questions that were not part of the performance contract,” says the statement.
One such irrelevant issue raised through the letter was Caan’s decision to terminate contract with Constructora Sanjose, the Spanish contractor, for the $92-million Tribhuvan International Airport Improvement Project. The contractor was sacked after it could not even meet 20 percent of its construction target in six years and did not show any sign of improving the performance.
The ministry, in its letter, had asked why Caan failed to enforce “force majeure” on the project, which would have legally allowed the contractor to breach the terms of the contract. Other irrelevant issues raised in the letter were dispute over the land owned by the Caan in Bhaktapur and Gautam’s decision to extend his Mongolia trip by a day.
“We have already sought clarification from acting secretary [of the ministry] on September 20 on inclusion of these issues in the letter sent to Gautam,” Civil Aviation Ministry Spokesperson Ghanshyam Upadhyaya said in a statement.
The acting secretary of the ministry at that time was Suresh Acharya. He could not be contacted as he is currently in the Czech Republic.
“It is clear that Acharya has been made a scapegoat,” said a source on condition of anonymity. “He was blamed for everything because the ministry has realised it made a blunder by seeking clarification on the issue related to sacking of the Spanish contractor.”
The decision to fire the Spanish contractor was not made by the Caan alone. It was made collectively by the Civil Aviation Ministry, the Ministry of Finance, the National Planning Commission and the Asian Development Bank, the main financier of the Tribhuvan International Airport Improvement Project.
The case to sack the Spanish company was so strong that petitions filed by the contractor in Nepali and Spanish courts were quashed. The case has now reached the Singapore International Arbitration Centre.
If Nepal loses this case because of the ministry’s decision to question the legitimacy of sacking the Spanish company, the government will have to pay billions of rupees to the contractor in compensation.
Considering the gravity of this issue, aviation experts have started asking questions like: “Should only one person be blamed for the entire episode?”
Reliable sources told the Post that the decision to seek clarification from Gautam was taken by a meeting held between newly appointed Civil Aviation Minister Jitendra Narayan Dev, Acharya; Ang Tshiring Sherpa, managing director of Yeti Airlines; Subash Gachhadar, son of Deputy Prime Minister and Local Development Minister Bijay Kumar Gachhadar; and Devananda Upadhyaya, general manager of the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). The meeting, according to sources, was held at Dwarika’s Hotel on September 12.
It is said that Sherpa influenced DPM Gachhadar and Minister Dev, who belong to the same political party, to seek clarification from Gautam. Multiple sources told the Post that the sacked Spanish contractor of the TIA Improvement Project worked closely with Sherpa. It is also said TIA General Manager Upadhyaya was sympathetic towards the Spanish contractor.
Caan Director General Gautam, on the other hand, was supportive of the
move to fire the Spanish contractor because the delay in expansion of TIA, which is seeing an influx of passengers, was raising safety concerns.
Gautam has played a crucial role in raising aviation safety standards in the country, which prompted the international civil aviation watchdog to remove the tag of ‘significant safety concerns’ put on Nepal’s aviation sector four years ago.
Removal of this tag is considered as the first step towards removing the country from the blacklist of the European Union, which has barred all Nepali carriers from flying in its skies due to poor air safety oversight record.
It is therefore not surprising that many do not mince words to call Gautam one of the best director generals at the Caan so far. But the Civil Aviation Ministry is still hell bent on sacking Gautam and has again sought clarification from him.
“This time, the questions have been framed around the performance contract that I signed with the Civil Aviation Ministry a year ago,” said Gautam. “I’ll send my response on Monday.”
The ministry is looking for ways to remove him, as “Upadhyaya and Acharya are eyeing the top post of the Caan”, at least two sources that the Post talked to said.
If he is fired, it may raise eyebrows of global aviation watchdog, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and the European Union, as frequent turnarounds of top level staff at the Caan have time and again been blamed for Nepal’s poor air safety standards, sources said.