Will Pokhara Int’l Airport be another Hambantota?


The main concern for India is whether Nepal will be able to repay China, failing which there may be a repeat of the Hambantota Port fiasco….reports Asian Lite News

Will India be invited by Nepal to help promote tourism by operating flights to the Pokhara International Airport?

The airport, built with a $215.96 million soft loan from China’s ExIm Bank, was inaugurated by Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a.k.a. Prachanda, on Sunday. However, commercial operations will start at a later date.

The main concern for India is whether Nepal will be able to repay China, failing which there may be a repeat of the Hambantota Port fiasco.

The Hambantota Port is in Sri Lanka and was built with financial support from China. In 2018, after failing to repay the loan, Sri Lanka was forced to lease out nearly 70 per cent control of the port to Chinese companies. Today, Chinese vessels, including warships and submarines of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), berth at Hambantota regularly, ostensibly to refuel or pick up supplies. What bothers India is that the port is uncomfortably close to the country’s coast.

“Pokhara is also very close to India, particularly cities in Uttar Pradesh like Gorakhpur and Lucknow. It is also not all that far from the strategic Siliguri corridor. What if Nepal fails to repay the loan and is forced to lease out the airport to the Chinese? What if the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) then starts using the airport as a support base, just as the PLAN has done in Hambantota? We are monitoring the situation. China has said that the airport will promote tourism from there to Nepal. However, the airport can’t be sustained with that traffic. Questions have already started being raised in Nepal,” a source in the Ministry of External Affairs said.

Pokhara is Nepal’s third international airport after Kathmandu and Bhairahawa. The Gautam Buddha International Airport at Bhairahawa hasn’t done too well in attracting international carriers since its opening in May 2022. While Pokhara has an advantage as it is the entry point to the Annapurna trekking route and several other attractions in the Himalayas, even those in Nepal know that the international airport there can’t become financially viable without regular flights from India.

A civil aviation official from Nepal conceded that the airport has its disadvantages.

“Weather conditions play a major role. Even our Prime Minister’s flight was delayed on the day of the inauguration due to bad weather and poor visibility. Small chartered flights, carrying mountaineers and trekkers, will not help sustain this airport. We will need larger players in the field of aviation for financial viability. We need to start talks with India on this,” he said.

The MEA source believes that this is just part of China’s efforts to entice countries like Nepal into a debt trap and then gain a strong foothold there.

“Countries like Nepal are going through an economic crisis. How can they even think of paying back China? Locals in Pokhara, whose lands were acquired, believe that the international airport there will result in economic growth and there was a lot of pressure to inaugurate the airport without proper planning. It is now upon the Nepal government to make the next move,” the source said.

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