Well-connectedAir routes must be a key agenda during Indian PM’s visit if new international airports are to be feasible
Four years may have passed since an airspace agenda was endorsed during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in August 2014, but it is clear that no concrete inroads have been made towards relieving congestion in air traffic. According to the joint communiqué issued by the two sides after the visit, cross-border direct routes would serve to facilitate flights between regional airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa, thus saving time and money for air travellers. They would also improve air connectivity between India and Nepal, and Nepal’s overall international traffic. But like many of Nepal’s other diplomatic undertakings, this understanding too has taken an unprecedented amount of time to take off.
A number of issues have consistently impeded any initiatives to follow up on the 2014 decision. Nepali officials visited New Delhi in December 2016 to initiate negotiations, but by the time they returned to Nepal, public attention was diverted to another issue concerning India’s request that their air marshals be allowed to stay overnight in Kathmandu, sparking suspicion about India’s intentions. And in February 2017, the two nations decided to form a technical team to initiate discussions on the opening of air routes via Janakpur, Mahendranagar and Nepalgunj. But these discussions were stillborn, as India failed to fix a time and venue for the meeting of the joint technical team. By the time they did, the Nepali Election Commission had issued its code of conduct in the run-up to the polls, barring officials from travelling abroad.
So there have indeed been no substantial developments, which is why it is all the more integral for the air route issue to be a key agenda for Nepal to raise during the Indian premier’s visit to Nepal on May 11 to 12.
The operation of new air routes is essential considering that Nepal has two international airports under construction and another being planned. Nepal is preparing to complete its $80 million Gautam Buddha Airport in Bhairahawa by 2019 and is also building a $216 million airport at Pokhara, which is scheduled to come into operation by July 2021. Another international airport costing $1.2 billion in Nijgadh is also planned.
The problem is that none of these airports will be financially or technically feasible if there are no developments on the airspace agenda between Nepal and India. As of now, there is only a single entry point in Simara for most of the aircraft flying in to the country. The other two entry points over Mechi and Tumlingtar have been specially designated for aircraft coming from Bhutan and Lhasa respectively.
It is now essential to commence operation of the proposed cross-border flight paths. Without these air routes, international flights heading for the Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa or the other airport in Pokhara from western Nepal would have to cover an additional 300km and 185km in aerial distance respectively. This would only serve to raise operating costs of airlines and drive up the price of the flights.
As it stands, the plans of Nepali carriers to expand cross-border flights have already been thwarted by the absence of adequate entry points. And according to experts, a number of years will yet be required to carry out the safety assessment of the proposed routes.
The air route talks must be a major focus in Nepal’s discussions with PM Modi so a concrete agreement can be made between the two sides. Quick agreement and operationalisation will also allay Nepali concerns that agreements with the Indian side remain confined to paper for too long.