Nepal is investigating a new airport made by China | ET REALITY

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As developing countries weigh the consequences of borrowing heavily from China for major infrastructure projects, anti-corruption officials in Nepal have launched an investigation into a landmark airport financed and built by Chinese state-owned companies.

Nepal’s $216 million international airport in Pokhara, the country’s second-largest city, opened in January. China agreed to provide loans to build the airport more than a decade ago. Nepal turned to China CAMC Engineering, the construction arm of a state-owned conglomerate, Sinomach, as a contractor.

The airport has failed to attract regular international flights, raising concerns about whether it will generate enough revenue to repay loans to its Chinese lenders. Nepalese officials have asked Beijing to convert the loans into a subsidy to ease the financial burden, but China has not agreed to do so.

Last month, The New York Times reported that CAMC had inflated the cost of the project and undermined Nepal’s efforts to maintain quality control, prioritizing its own commercial interests. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, the agency overseeing the airport’s construction, did not put up much resistance, reluctant to upset Beijing on a project important to both countries.

Shortly after the article was published, the Nepal Commission for Investigation of Abuses and Authority raided the offices of the Civil Aviation Authority in Pokhara and confiscated documents related to the project.

Bhola Dahal, a spokesman for the anti-graft agency, confirmed that an investigation into the airport was underway, but declined to give further details, noting that it was still in the preliminary stages. He said the agency had launched the investigation in response to a complaint about irregularities in the project. He declined to say who filed the complaint. Local media reports said the agency had received more than 20 complaints about the quality of construction at the airport.

The investigation is the latest black eye for China’s overseas infrastructure projects, which face criticism for expensive, shoddy construction that leaves borrowing countries awash in debt. Beijing has declared the Pokhara airport as the “flagship project” of its Belt and Road Initiative with Nepal.

The Belt and Road Initiative, a signature campaign of President Xi Jinping of China, has delivered approximately $1 trillion in loans and grants as part of Beijing’s efforts to build stronger economic and diplomatic ties around the world. while bolstering the lucrative infrastructure construction business. for their state companies.

Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest countries, had been trying to build an international airport in Pokhara since the 1970s in hopes of turning the city into a tourist destination. The airport had deep meaning for Nepalese officials, who hailed it as a project of “national pride” because it was seen as a gateway to one of its most famous places: the Himalayas.

Nepal’s anti-graft agency is constitutionally empowered to investigate high-profile corruption cases and file charges before an independent special court. This year, in an unrelated case, a former government minister and a sitting member of Nepal’s Parliament were found guilty of corruption charges brought by the anti-graft body.

Jagannath Niroula, deputy director general of the Civil Aviation Authority, said anti-corruption investigators had spent two or three days in Pokhara investigating the quality of the airport’s construction.

Some engineers who had worked at the airport told investigators that the quality of the building had been compromised and that the project’s infrastructure was not sound, said two people familiar with the investigation, who were not permitted to speak publicly about the matter.

In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was not aware of an investigation into the airport, but noted that it had always required Chinese companies operating abroad to comply with local laws and regulations. The ministry said CAMC “strictly implemented quality standards and maintained complete records during the construction process.” CAMC did not respond to requests for comment on the investigation.

There is growing distrust among countries struggling to pay their debts to China. Sri Lanka was forced to hand over a deep-sea port to China when it could not repay its loans. About 30 percent of Pakistan’s external debt is owed to China, a figure that has increased with the construction of a $50 billion China-Pakistan economic corridor. In Malaysia, an $11 billion rail link was suspended until a Chinese contractor agreed to cut costs on the project.

The Pokhara airport is one of several Nepali projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, which the country signed in 2017. China agreed to finance a feasibility study for a cross-border railway that would be part of the so-called Trans-Himalaya. connectivity network that could eventually include highways connecting the two countries. Nepal is also seeking Chinese help for a power transmission line that would cross the countries’ border.

But Nepal has rejected the designation of the airport as a Belt and Road project, because that label has complicated its diplomatic relations with India, its neighbor and China’s rival for its influence in the region. India, a major destination for Nepalese travelers, has been slow to approve flights to and from the airport.

Engineering consultants who worked on the airport told The Times that CAMC’s work did not meet international standards. The company completed work on filling dirt for the runway, but did not provide documentation that it had tested the density of the soil, meaning Nepalese officials had no guarantee that the runway’s foundation would be built correctly, according to Murari Gautam. , an external consultant hired by Nepal’s aviation agency.

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