Bhim Prasad Acharya

  • The tourism sector and CAAN need a complete overhaul
Bhim Prasad Acharya

Jun 8, 2014-

Last December, the European Commission blacklisted all Nepali airlines, terming them unsafe. This year, no sooner had the Everest climbing season begun, it came to an early close as an avalanche on the mountain on April 18 killed 16 Sherpas—the deadliest day on Everest ever. These mishaps do not bode well for the Nepali tourism industry but all is not lost. The Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) recently added a new aircraft to its fleet in 28 years and is looking to revitalise the tourism and civil aviation sectors. The tourism industry still faces multiple problems in its institutions—financial irregularities in the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) and creation of a new executive post in the NAC among others. Sangam Prasai and Darshan Karki spoke to Bhim Prasad Acharya, Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, about his plans for the sector, political appointment in the NAC, air safety and construction of new international airports.

The Ministry of Tourism is faced with multiple problems concerning air safety, the appointment of a CEO at the NTB and concerns about financial embezzlement. How do plan to address these problems?

I agree that the Ministry faces multiple problems and when one tries to resolve them, more controversies follow. There is controversy concerning the buying of an airplane and controversy regarding the building of an airport. This is a disease that has infected the Ministry since the 1990s. Hence, no new airplanes were added to the fleet and neither were new airports built. I am trying to do a few new things. First, I decided to construct a regional international airport in Pokhara. This plan had been embroiled in controversy for the past three to four years. Second, we have bought new airplanes. The MA60 plane almost did not arrive, despite having already been bought. There were issues of registration, de-registration and re-registration. Even then, it arrived a day later than planned. The date of arrival had been postponed by a month but I intervened directly and the plane arrived without a Nepali registration but a Chinese one.

But that plane is not currently in operation either.  

Yes, it has been over a month-and-a-half since I asked that operations be resumed. NAC even came up with a schedule but the plane did not have a Nepali registration along with other paperwork. We had a provision for a main Chinese pilot for the first three months of operation but the Chinese pilot did not come. China seems to have reasoned that they did not have a pilot who understood English. Nevertheless, we have sent four Nepali pilots to China for training. I recently met with the Chinese aviation company, along with officials from Caan (Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal) and NAC and the Ministry’s secretary and asked them to resolve the issue. We have come up with a schedule to begin operations by June 15. But now, officials are saying that the Chinese registration will stay in effect until June 27 so they will provide the plane Nepali registration from the 28th.

How do you plan to deal with Nepali airlines being blacklisted by the European Commission?

This happened before I assumed my post. In any case, to get off the blacklist, Caan must be reformed. Our working style must change and the entire system must be overhauled. For now, I have taken a few steps regarding airplane safety. We have begun a pilot and engineering training programme, currently being conducted by national and foreign experts. The second issue is related to a lack of equipment. Japan has provided us with a powerful radar system and it is currently being installed at Phulchowki. The will help us see to a greater distance. Third, currently, we only know the weather of the place the plane takes off from and the place where it lands, not the weather en route. So we have decided to install weather radars along the way. We also have many problems regarding ground surveillance. We have decided to buy technical equipment to address this problem. We also plan to build hangers so that we can check the state of aircraft every six months.

But you are also planning to revive the dual executive model at NAC, despite the internal strife between the managing director and executive chairman which lasted for five years and handicapped the institution.

Though I have proposed an executive chairperson in the NAC, the rights of the Managing Director will not be taken away. The executive chairperson will work alongside the MD to motivate, supervise, inspect and provide necessary guidelines to employees. There will be no overlap of responsibilities. In the past, there was a tug-of-war among officials as there was no clear division of work. As of now, one MD is not able to do everything.

There has been a furor in the international media concerning the April avalanche on Everest and the plight of the Sherpas. How will you ensure their safety on Everest?

The mishap on Everest was a natural disaster. Still, we managed to rescue people within four hours and provided family members with assistance. Sadly, there is no device to predict an avalanche.

Moving on to the Tourism Board, why has the government not been able to appoint a CEO?

The Board has not been able to appoint a CEO for the past three years. Five of the board members are from the private sector, two were appointed during Sharad Singh Bhandari’s time and three by the Maoist government. They bicker among themselves and do not come for meetings. Even though I asked them to appoint a CEO or quit, there is not much the government can do. As per law, a CEO Recommendation Committee has to be formed by three among the five representatives from the private sector. The three should then recommend one name each. But they have not been able to form the Recommendation Committee itself.

There are also concerns about financial irregularities at the Tourism Board. The Auditor General’s report clearly states that the Board’s transactions are not transparent.

The law does not give us any right on issues of corruption. The right to investigate and prosecute lies with the Commission for the Investigation for Abuse of Authority (CIAA). Nevertheless, I have formed an investigation committee to learn what is going on here. If we find any irregularities, we will write to the CIAA and ask it to take necessary action.

What is the status of an international airport at Nijgadh?

I have been talking with interested parties. If we open the tender and no one applies then it will be problem. Suppose some parties apply and get it but hold the project for years then that is not good either. I am more worried about the second scenario. It can create many legal problems. Once we are certain that a credible company will apply, we will open the tender.

Who has shown interest so far?

The Chinese and the Indians. The Japanese are more interested in modernising the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA).

In recent times, the TIA runway repeatedly peels off during the monsoon. How do you plan to address this?

The runaway was built for narrow-body aircrafts. Now, wide-body aircrafts also land at TIA. We conducted a survey and found that the damage to the lower asphalt layers had led to cracks on the upper surface. We are planning to re-build the runway. Throughout the day, the runaway will be used for landing and takeoff and at night, construction will continue. The work can be completed within two months. However, we need to issue a tender and select a company. This means work cannot begin immediately. The monsoon is already here. Work will begin in the coming winter. For now, we will have to manage.

You have taken many bold decisions after taking office, mostly concerning issues that remained unresolved in the past. What else do you plan to accomplish?

First, to build international airports in Pokhara, Nijgadh and Bhairahawa. If possible, I would like to make Dhangadi an international cargo hub. Budget will be allocated to develop Biratnagar and Nepalgunj into regional airports. I also plan to blacktop all airport runways in the hilly districts and modernise them. Second, I plan to buy new airplanes. Larger aircraft will be purchased through loans. I also plan to remove Nepal from the EC’s blacklist by making air travel safer. Lastly, I plan to develop tourist destinations. 

Published: 09-06-2014 08:46

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