TONG SIAN CHOO
When China's Exim Bank agreed to provide a $145 million soft loan for the airport, it looked like the project would finally take off after languishing for 38 years. However, political bickering and resistance from the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) have stalled hopes of any real progress.
The problem started soon after Finance Minister Barsha Man Pun signed a MoU with CAMC Engineering, a Chinese construction firm which offered the lowest bid of $305 million for the project without waiting for the results of the process in which only Chinese companies were allowed to bid.
CAAN unions affiliated with major political parties are protesting the decision saying CAMC's bid is too expensive, and that it won't be possible for CAAN to repay the interest on top of maintaining operation costs of a new international airport here.
A study conducted by a private Nepali engineering consultancy last year estimated the airport would cost $180 million. However, this figure was for a smaller airport. The Chinese bid document is reportedly for a 3,000m runway with parallel taxiway, two terminals, a hangar, cargo terminal, radar and air traffic control equipment.
Questions are also being asked about why the deal was hurriedly pushed through without making the bidding process public and political parties suspect the Maoist government of forging an under-the-table deal. But ex-CA member and Maoist leader from Kaski, Rajkaji Gurung is quick to defend Finance Minister Pun's decision to move ahead with the contracting process.
"That is how the Chinese work. The delegation wanted an assurance from their Nepali counterparts that the project would go ahead despite changes in government in the future. Once the government gave its guarantee, the formalities were finished very quickly," he explained to Nepali Times after a public hearing here last week.
This state of limbo has angered locals in Kaski, especially the business community which has formed the Pokhara Regional International Airport Construction Concern Committee. The pressure groups accuse politicians and bureaucrats in Kathmandu of sabotaging the project.
"People in Kathmandu think Nepal is Kathmandu. We want them to know that we exist and Pokhara exists," said a visibly frustrated Krishna Mohan Shrestha, president of Pokhara Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the hearing.
The locals are so outraged that they are threatening to shut down the domestic airport if construction of the new airport is not given the green light. Speaking at the meeting, former FNCCI chairman, Ananda Raj Mulmi explained, "We have conducted numerous studies and they all show that the new airport is not only financially viable, but also practical. The power brokers in Kathmandu need to understand that when the airport gets built, it will not only benefit Pokhara, but boost the economy of the entire country. There are no losers, only winners."
Given Nepal's slow paced progress, the new international airport has the potential to trigger economic growth in Pokhara and surrounding districts by promoting tourism and providing employment to locals. The new airport can also serve as an alternative when bad weather shuts down Kathmandu airport. Nepalis travelling abroad or coming home, especially into central Nepal, can avoid the capital and slash six hours from travel time.
CAAN's concern over payments of loans seems to many here as being politically motivated. Parties as usual are vying for control of the largest piece of the airport pie without caring about the damage done to the economy, and Nepal's reputation in the international community.
A new Pokhara airport can be the perfect stop-gap alternative to take the pressure off Kathmandu, and benefit the whole country.
Finally, a new airport?, RAMESH POUDEL in POKHARA