Nepal needs to urgently upgrade its aviation gateway. Year after year, Kathmandu’s airport has had the dubious distinction of being voted among the top ten worst in the world. Cosmetic improvements have been made lately, but the country’s only international airport is plagued with mismanagement and is a known den for smugglers, traffickers and extortionists.
A $100 million ADB-funded project to increase the airport’s capacity has been mired in corruption. Even the modest first phase to expand the present terminal is five years behind schedule because of a dispute between the Spanish contractor and the government.
The only runway is a wreck, operations are frequently halted at peak hour to patch potholes, leading to delays and cancellations. Despite such shoddy and inadequate infrastructure, Kathmandu has the highest landing and ground handling fees in the world, and the most expensive aviation fuel.
Increase in traffic has led to monstrous congestion at both the arrival and departure concourses. Matters become much worse in winter when poor visibility due to proximity to a highly polluted urban core delays flights. Planes are put on hold in the air for hours.
The pressure on Kathmandu was supposed to ease with the construction of two other international airports at Bhairawa and Pokhara. Bhairawa is supposed to serve as a direct gateway to Lumbini, and will have a new terminal building and longer runway to accommodate larger jets. But the $70 million ADB project is delayed because the sub-contractors were conmen. It will now be completed in 2020.
The saga of Pokhara’s new international airport spans four decades. It finally got a go-ahead with a loan from China Exim Bank, but the final inflated price tag of $305 million is suspicously high, and has a whiff of kickbacks in high places.
All these delays have convinced many in government and business of the urgent need of a mega airport in Nijgad in the plains 75km south of Kathmandu. A detailed design by the Korean Landmark Worldwide company envisages two parallel runways 3,600m long, world-class terminal building, aprons, hangars and even an adjoining aeropolis. Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari calls it a “game changer”.
Read also: Economy & ecology of Nijgad airport, Om Astha Rai
Up to 2.4 million trees would be cut to accommodate the 80 sq km airport. London’s Heathrow is only 12.14 sq km. Most of the site is covered in dense jungle, the last remaining primary forest in the eastern Tarai and an important corridor for wildlife migration. The government has promised to plant 25 trees for every one cut, and resettle the 7,000 people who will be displaced, but few believe that.
Although the ecological rationale has caught the people’s attention, the much more convincing argument against Nijgad is actually economic. As a Nepali Times investigation in June showed, there are serious questions about the viability of such a gargantuan airport.
The hub-and-spoke model in international aviation is now obsolete with the rise of a new generation of ultra-long range airliners which can fly point-to-point nonstop for up to 20 hours. Instead of putting all our eggs in one basket with an expensive, over-sized airport, it makes much more economic sense to decentralise and improve Kathmandu, Pokhara and Bhairawa and upgrade Biratnagar or Dhangadi to international airports as passenger demand grows.
And why should the government be in such a tearing hurry to chop down 250,000 trees right away for a project that has not even been finalised, investors have not shown any interest yet (and it is doubtful they ever will)? For a soft state with such high levels of corruption, impunity, mismanagement and poor record of implementation, Nijgad is not just a white elephant, it will be a white dinosaur.
Just to put it in perspective: Nijgad is 12 times more expensive than the mammoth Melamchi Project that is 20 years behind schedule, and its total cost represents half of Nepal’s annual budget.
Another story in this edition on the helicopter rescue scam that threatens to undermine Nepal’s tourism industry is symptomatic of just how deep the rot is. Insurance fraud by powerful businesses enjoying political protection does not give us much confidence that a $6.7 million project will ever take off.
In fact, Nijgad is now looking more and more like a logging concession than an airport project. Megalomania and kleptomania make a lethal combination.
Fly or ride?
Does Nepal need a 4th International Airport?