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Editorial: A rare flight

Editorial: A rare flight
Six months after inauguration, Pokhara International Airport received its first international flight—from China—on Wednesday. The Lake City known for its scenic beauty and hospitality offered the guests, including the participants at the Nepal-China Dragon Boat Race Festival scheduled at the Fewa Lake on Friday, a hearty welcome. The landmark touchdown at the airport has offered a ray of hope for Nepal’s economy as a whole. Let the pundits of diplomacy wrack their brains over whether it was fitting on the part of Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Chen Song, to reiterate the same old line—that the airport is part of BRI. This allows us to delve a bit more into more pressing concerns. Half a year into the inauguration and a maiden flight later, let’s reread part of the $215.96m loan deal between the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal and China’s Exim Bank. Of this loan with a repayment period of 20 years, 25 percent is interest-free while the remaining amount has a two percent annual interest attached. This means the airport has to start earning right away, which is easier said than done. While the airport on the lap of picturesque hills and snow-clad peaks keeps looking at the sprawling city of Pokhara and much beyond for flights, politicians and bureaucrats seem to be twiddling their thumbs. Remember, this is the very crop that goes out of the way to fast-track projects, bothering not even to conduct in-depth viability studies. As the airport continues to stay idle, it will be timely to ask as to what the government, particularly the Center, has been doing to promote it in international markets. Has it been using diplomatic channels to encourage international airlines to operate flights to and from Pokhara as it has become clear that star-gazing isn’t an effective way to bring business to the airport, even if it is located at one of the most popular tourist destinations? While the envoy’s latest BRI claim has helped keep the controversy alive, it has also shown, most probably, the northern neighbor’s willingness to make this project a success. Nonetheless, it is objectionable on the part of China to claim the airport as part of BRI as a framework deal on BRI was signed only in 2017 whereas Chinese loan for the airport was taken in 2016.

Also under rough weather is the Gautam Buddha International Airport in Lumbini, developed with financing from the Asian Development Bank and the government of Nepal by mobilizing Chinese contractors.

For want of shorter and more cost-efficient flight routes, this airport hasn’t been able to attract international flights. Our government seems pretty comfortable with this state of affairs, even as the burden of one more foreign-financed project keeps increasing on the taxpayer. Lumbini, the birthplace of Shakyamuni Buddha and several other lesser Buddhas like Krakkuchanda and Kashyap, is the ultimate pilgrimage of peace-loving humanity. Ambassador Chen’s remark is perhaps an indication that his country’s international prestige is attached with these projects. So, Nepal should request China to send in guests and make these projects a success. In the long run, the government should expand its diplomatic outreach to bring in guests from around the world. That’s too little to ask from the practitioners of the art of the impossible, isn’t it?