SIAN CHOO TONG
There is an apocryphal joke about an Indian minister of infrastructure who invited his Nepali counterpart to his villa in Gurgaon. The Nepali minister was puzzled, and asked: "How can you afford a mansion like this?"
The Indian minister took the Nepali minister to the window, and said: "See that highway? Ten percent."
Five years later, the Nepali minister invited his Indian counterpart to an official visit to Nepal and took him to his villa in Pokhara. The Indian minister was impressed, and asked how he could afford such a huge palace. The Nepali minister took the Indian minister to the window and said see that airport? "No," replied the Indian minister. "Exactly," replied the Nepali minister, "100 per cent."
All we can do, presumably, is laugh about the new Pokhara airport. In 1976, the government acquired 500 hectares of land to build a new airport to serve what was then a small town. The old airport was built for DC-3s, and was unsuitable for larger aircrafts.
Thirty-six years later, Pokhara's population has grown ten fold, tourist arrivals last year hit 200,000, there are 40 tourist buses plying between Kathmandu and Pokhara every day, the land for the airport is still there, but there is no airport. Finally, there is movement.
The Chinese Exim Bank has reportedly said it is willing to offer a soft loan to support the entire $305 million project, but only Chinese firms are allowed to bid under the Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) formula. Now, the four unions affiliated with the four main political forces in the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) say the project is too expensive. They seem determined to put a spanner in the works.
The Chinese bid is reportedly for a 3,000m runway with parallel taxiway, two terminals, a hangar, cargo terminal, radar and air traffic control equipment. If built, Pokhara airport with its air-bridges would be more modern than Kathmandu's antiquated, corrupt and urine-reeking airport. Which is why we also see nothing wrong with handing over the management of Kathmandu airport to whichever international private company is foolish enough to take over it.
The party-affiliated unions opposing the new Pokhara airport suspect someone is making big bucks out of this deal, and they want their share. This is the same reason why Nepal Airlines lost the offer of two heavily discounted Airbuses last year because members of a parliamentary committee weren't in on the deal. Also the reason why the Upper Trisuli project last week had its license revoked on the day that the agreement was supposed to be signed in Canada because someone high up didn't get his (or her) kickback.
Pokhara Airport is an ideal second international airport because it can be finished in two-and-half years from go-ahead, it can be the catalyst for growth for the whole central Nepal, overseas workers can fly off from Pokhara itself and take the pressure off the capital, and it can be the diversion airport for airlines which are losing millions to frequent closures at Kathmandu airport due to poor visibility. It can be the perfect stop-gap before another more ambitious airport is built in Nijgad or Bhairawa. It's not just Pokhara that needs a new airport, the whole country needs one.
Nepali officialdom has the worst combination of stupidity and greed. If they were at least smart and corrupt (like the Indian minister in the joke) they'd take their cut, let the economy grow so their pie would get bigger, as would their share. Here in Nepal, we extract from the pie until there isn't a pie anymore. The culture that is taking this country down is that if a rival has something, I want it. And if I can't get it, I'll make it impossible for you to have it either, the country be damned.
Up in the air, TONG SIAN CHOO and CANDICE NEO in POKHARA
Politics as usual has stalled hopes of any real progress in Pokhara's new international airport