Last week, Business Bhutan exposed several problems related to the hasty construction of the two domestic airports and the use of an unfit aircraft by the national airliner and the clumsy circumstances under which it was approved by the government. Despite claims by authorities that safety issues were not compromised, circumstantial evidence indicates that the claim is not based on scientific reasoning. This issue is discomforting and the only consolation is that the lackluster decisions made have not yet resulted in any disaster. But if needful interventions are not made, we may only be delaying an imminent disaster.
The issue requires an immediate review. We cannot afford any kind of complacency in a sector as sensitive as aviation because it is directly related to human lives. But so far, we have not heard of any credible response from any authority to look into the issue.
Ever since this paper started investigating the story, the issue has taken an undesired twist and has now become a blame-game with both the Druk Air and the Department of Civil Aviation standing their ground and pointing fingers at each other. Both appear keen to wash their hands off the issue. Even the information and communication minister has asserted that the construction of the domestic airports wasn’t rushed. But he has accepted that the construction work was not done properly giving enough grounds for a deeper probe into the issue.
The detailed findings are not so pleasing. Works were flawed from the beginning. The planners did not get the basics right. There were flaws even in the design of the airports. There was a lack of competent professionals to handle the works. The constructions were carried out under a stained timeline and there was no adequate funding for it. The pressure from higher authorities further hastened the construction leading to compromises all along the way.
Inspection reports on runway show alarming results. Both airport runways in Bumthang and Yongphula are already showing ageing effects that would only worsen. The DCA certified the airports for use despite reports of poor runways and it didn’t stop operations even when it was informed about the runway conditions.
Despite both airports not being designed for heavy aircrafts like the ATR, the DCA allowed Druk Air to use the ATR having initially disallowed it. The DCA has formally agreed that it was a “mistake.” The DCA also applied some conditions on Druk Air using the ATR like allowing them to use only half the runway and to carry a maximum of only 20 passengers on the 48-passenger ATR. But these conditions were never made public raising serious questions on the reasons and intentions behind it. A DCA official clearly reveals that Bhutan Aero-standards have certainly been violated.
Druk Air, on the other hand, has suspended its domestic operations on “safety” grounds highlighting that the runways are not safe but are using the Bumthang airport to train new pilots.
There are spillovers from the reasoning of both the DCA and the Druk Air. One message is loud and clear – there were a lot of compromises made. The extent of these compromises has to be studied and only a detailed probe would be able to unearth dipper discrepancies, if any. It is also vital to see whether safety issues were actually compromised because if it was so, it is a serious offense.
It is also necessary to assess whether the whole project was rushed. If so, why? Of late speculations are flying wild that the first elected government is in a rush to deliver all of its campaign promises with its tenure coming to an end. Is the domestic airport debacle an extended result to such a pursuit?
With the next elections less than a year away, one cannot but correlate many decisions of the present government to last minute reconciliation of its efforts and promises. One such decision is the endorsement of the Education City Act. A much prized pronouncement of the DPT government, the education city was getting a lukewarm response at best from outside investors. It was looking like a million dollar disaster and only a legislation could have salvaged its future. It was at such a time that the Education City Act was tabled and passed.
For the past few months now, the economy has been struggling. The money flow has been severely strangulated with the banks stopping its lending services, prices of all products have skyrocketed, land prices have plummeted to an all time low, tax has increased on multiple products, imports have been restricted, and the rupee crisis never seems to end. But the government has been desperately trying to downplay the extremities of the situation. It has still not called it a crisis.
Under such a situation, there are again speculations that the government may increase the salary of the civil servants (possibly as an urgent Bill) in the winter session of the parliament. There is a dark cloud of uncertainty hovering over the present government and it cannot afford to downplay issues that warrant a national scrutiny.
The above article was published in Business Bhutan on July 14, 2012