What to do with Pokhara’s ‘extra’ airport?

The terminal building of Pokhara’s new airport with its sweeping steel roof nears completion amidst a dramatic backdrop of the Annapurnas.

Forty years after it was first proposed, Pokhara’s new airport is finally nearing completion to connect the scenic tourism hub to regional capitals by July 2022.

With an investment of Rs22 billion, China’s CAMC Engineering has now finished the runway, apron, taxiway and terminal work and all that remains to be done is to slice off the top of a hill on the eastern approach to the airport, which will be able to accommodate Airbus 320s and Boeing 757s.

Nepal’s third international airport after Kathmandu and Lumbini, the project was delayed by decades of turf battles, bureaucratic hurdles, local opposition, corruption in high places, and finally the pandemic last year.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) is planning a soft opening in mid-2022 for domestic flights and then allow international flights from China, India, Malaysia and the Gulf countries.

However, there are now questions about current airport, with the Pokhara Airport Office, CAAN and the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation undecided about what to do with the prime real estate.

The chief of Pokhara Airport, Bikram Raj Gautam, who is also coordinating the task force to prepare for the transfer of operations, says there are no firm decisions yet.

"We have sent appropriate suggestions to the higher authorities," he said evasively, "ultimately, we follow what they decide. It could continue to be used for other aviation-related work."

Read more: Pokhara: Nepal’s new aviation gateway, Kunda Dixit

Pokhara airport is the second busiest airport in the country after Kathmandu, with an average of 31 flights a day connecting Jomsom, Bhairawa, Simara, Bharatpur, Nepalganj and Kathmandu.

Out of 54 airports across the country 19 are currently inoperative, and locals have turned a majority of these into grazing areas for livestock. In addition, CAAN is not up to speed on the utilities, land, and infrastructure that remain in those airfields. This raises doubts about whether it can handle the vested interests that have eyes on the present airport’s valuable real estate.

“The necessary infrastructure and staff of the closed airports have all been shifted and repurposed to the nearest open airport," says CAAN’s Raj Kumar Chhetri, who adds that it is necessary to prevent encroachment and pressure from the land mafia.

"Such expensive property in the middle of the city cannot go to waste," he says. "If pressure on the new international airport were to drastically increase, the old airport could be brought back into service for domestic flights and sports aviation," he says.

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Cleared to land

"Pokhara will be a game changer"

Unfortunately, the delay in decision-making means the airport may be subject to the same misuse seen in other government properties. Examples like the Baluwatar land scandal in Kathmandu show that politicians and legislators often have their eyes on cashing in on national property.

Pokhara’s civil society wants to keep the airport as an open space in a city that is urbanising fast and losing its greenery. Indeed, municipalities across Nepal are fond of erecting concrete monuments, build shopping centres and view towers, or just haphazardly selling the land piecemeal.

Chhetri says Pokhara’s current airport will not be abandoned like other closed airfields across the country.

"After appropriate research, the airport can be used in the public’s interest," he says. However, these matters are yet to be discussed with local representatives and Pokhara’s businesses.

Pokhara’s deputy mayor Manju Devi Gurung is adamant about preventing unnecessary development at the site. She says: “It should be preserved as an open space. Even if it is the property of the national government, it should be used for the benefit of the locals of Pokhara."

Local stakeholders agree that the airport should be converted into a green area with a public park. Infrastructure expert, Suryaraj Acharya sees this as an opportunity to enhance the beauty of the city, and says: "Open spaces are integral for families and communities. There is no need to even think about adding more concrete to the area."

Translated from the original by Aryan Sitaula.

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