The government attempted to defuse the potentially disastrous situation arising from the service charge dispute between hotel owners and hotel workers by bringing the industry under the Essential Services Act. The action has restored normalcy-for the time being, for who knows how long-to the industry, but is that the only outcome we'll see?
What people want to know is that if the government could prohibit strikes in the hotel industry, why did it not act earlier? Why wait for the strike to cripple hotel operations and tarnish the already waning image of tourism in Nepal? This should have been an action of first, not last resort. Bear in mind, though, that this is simply a short-term measure. If this issue is to be resolved with any certainty or finality, the government must force the industry and labour to talk. One way to bring both sides to the negotiating table would've been making not just strikes illegal, but also the closure of hotels by the enterprises. Applying the Essential Services Act to the health sector has made little difference to the situation there-health workers are still protesting through strikes. Hotel workers behaved like law-abiding citizens, and withdrew their call to strike, but that hasn't ended anything.
The government's action turned this Beed's thoughts to the Act itself. The Act was promulgated in 1957, and needless to say, remains there to this day. It has outlived its initial impetus and rationale. It underwent no changes during Panchayat rule or after the restoration of democracy. The Act is basically this two-page document that just lists essential services, says that strikes in these sectors are not allowed by law, and ends with a mild reminder that if strikes were to take place, they would be treated as criminal offences. The penalty? An absurdly small sum of money, and even so, it's quite difficult to actually find cases where people have been prosecuted under the provisions of the Act.
As most of our crises seem to do, the hotel industry crisis has forced the government to turn its attention to yet another aspect of governance. It's time the Essential Services Act was reviewed and brought up to date to cover not only services that are essential to citizens, but also economic services essential to the nation. If, for instance, we have IT companies doing well, and we feel that IT could be the backbone of tomorrow's exports, then we need to put in place legislature dealing with this sector, too. And we need to do it before the fact, rather than wait to be pushed into a corner.
Essential Services could range from highways that are constantly shut down, to neighbourhood lanes which are regularly blocked by rampant digging. Education and health are, of course, essential services, and if someone decides to close schools or threaten to close schools there have to be mechanisms in place to make sure they're unsuccessful. Protecting essential services means the government ensures citizens have access to them. If the highway is blocked for hours and if the local administration is ineffective, then perhaps there could be a provision to ensure that the
army can be brought in to clear the highway.
Like every other legislation, the Essential Services Act needs to be amended to reflect today's Nepal and the problems we face. The spirit of the constitution must, of course, be upheld, and people's fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution, but there have to be provisions that allow state intervention when lawlessness threatens to take over. There should be spirited debate about specific cases and the legal aspects of such provisions. At least this will mean the issue is on the radar of our slawmakers and the judiciary-this is a basic move to ensure that Nepal and the Nepali economy survive.
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