Basudev Paudel/Krishna Dawadi
Pokhara: After a four-and-half-decade wait, the Pokhara Regional International Airport has been almost complete. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), the state-owned civil aviation regulator, through its meeting recently has announced to formally operate the project on 1 January, 2023.
So far, the approximately Rs 22 billion project has witnessed the completion of 98 percent construction work, say authorities. Construction of 14 buildings including the domestic and international terminal and decoration has been completed. Construction of the runway, a building for air traffic control rooms, airport aprons, taxi ways, parking lots, footpaths, roads linking the airport with the highway and subways has been over.
The airport has been almost ready and work on managing a landfill site nearby and cutting a hill at Ritthepani however remains, says Binesh Munakarmi, chief of the airport construction project. The hill cutting will be complete within coming October.
"It is a matter of happiness and pride for the residents of Pokhara and entire Gandaki Province that the airport, a dream project for the Pokhara people, is operating soon after a longstanding struggle," says Bishwo Shankar Palikhe, a person who joined a struggle demanding the construction of the project. He called for managing a landfill site nearby before the operation of the project as birds hovering around may pose risks through bird strikes.
Although the land acquisition started long ago since 2034 BS, the construction could not move ahead due to various reasons. So, the local people started a struggle demanding the construction of the project. Palikhe is also spokesperson for the Nepali Congress, Kaski and former president of the Pokhara Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The concerned authorities should be serious about whether or not the movements of birds around could be stopped even following the relocation of the dumping site, he stresses.
According to him, the Pokhara Regional International Airport concerned construction committee back on 24 March, 2012 through a statement launched a struggle demanding the construction of the airport. It on 30 March the same year wrote to the then Vice Chairperson of the National Planning Commission, Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Tourism Minister, the Public Accounts Committee and top leaders of major political parties on the matter.
The agitators also staged relay-hunger strikes time and again. But, the project saw the light at the end of the tunnel only when the then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on 13 April, 2016 laid the foundation for the project with four years of completion target.
The project was constructed with the loans and grants worth around Rs 22 billion from the Exim Bank of China. The China CMC Engineering Company got the contract to build the national pride project of Nepal spanning approximately 3,700 ropanis of land.
The airport has capacity of enduring the landing and takeoff of 320 narrow-body airbuses and 735 Boeing aircrafts simultaneously. Its apron has capacity of parking three large and eight small aircrafts at a time.
The runway is 2,500 meters in length and 45 meters in width. There are 14 domestic and international terminal buildings.
The Chinese construction company four months ago handed over the project to the Government of Nepal after completing 93 percent construction work.
However, experts have warned that there are not possibilities in operating flights until problems relating to the dump site nearby are resolved.
Shifting the dumping ground is becoming a pressing issue for Pokhara Metropolitan City. The landfill site at Banchhebuduwa in the metropolis-14, around two kilometers away from the project, should be shifted to operate the airport. But, the metropolis has yet to find a suitable place for the same.
The metropolis has assured of shifting the dumping site, says Bikram Gautam, chief of the CAAN office, Pokhara.
Talks with all sectors concerned were ongoing for the operation of the airport, he says. The metropolis was prepared to shift the dumping site to Timurpata of Bharatpokhari in the ward-33. But, the local people protested halting it. The metropolis allocated Rs 100 million for the purpose in the current fiscal year, 2022/23.
Now, the CAAN is in preparations to fill the existing landfill site with soils extracted from cutting the Ritthepani hill. As a result, birds flying around would go elsewhere without foods for them and trees for their habitat, it believes.
However, the task is not easier either, experts view. It will take at least one year to chase away birds from the area of the landfill site despite its shifting, says Manshanta Ghimire, chairperson of the Pokhara Bird Society.
Stating that the area is a habitat for birds including vultures and eagles, it will be difficult to drive away birds in a short span of time, Ghimire says.
Birds in the area have made nests. Vultures in search of carcasses through the Seti river banks reach the area. According to available data, over 162 species of birds are found in the area. Of them, five are critically endangered and two are endangered. White vultures and brown vultures have made nests in the area since 2014, according to Ghimire.
Paragliding at risk?
However on the other hand, the project has put paragliding at Sarangkot nearby at risk. The adventure sport has found an important place in tourism in the tourist destination. It is not possible to operate paragliding at Sarangkot following the operation of the airport, according to the CAAN.
This has put tourism entrepreneurs in the area in fear. Pokhara houses over 60 paragliding companies in operation at present. Around 360 pilots have directly got a job at the adventure sport, says Krishna Bhandari, outgoing chairperson of the Nepal Airsports Association, Pokhara.
"Paragliding is the identity of Pokhara. Operating the adventure sport will help the airport in the long term. Tourists reaching Pokhara through flights for the sport will be helpful."
The authorities concerned have been urged to take initiatives not to discontinue the sport while operating the airport, he says. The authorities concerned are positive however. In an event recently in Pokhara, Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Jeevan Ram Shrestha assured of seeking ways to continue paragliding while operating the airport. In the process, air safety should not be compromised, he stated. "Tourism entrepreneurs in Pokhara have demanded the conservation of paragliding, a brand name in the tourist city. There will not be any compromise on aircraft safety. We are at work to continue the sport while not compromising on air safety."