It's a project that could transform Nepal's bleak foreign investment scenario and catapult Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, to a "Mecca for Buddhists".
But less than a month after a Hong Kong-based foundation signed a MoU with UN Industrial Development Organisation, the Nepal government has refused to recognize the ambitious project.
The Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, a Chinese government backed NGO, had signed the deal to develop Lumbini, a UN world heritage site, with funds worth US $3 billion.
The project aimed at creating a 'special development zone' in the sleepy township by building airports, convention centres and infrastructure network ran into controversy for failing to take the Nepal government on board.
As Lumbini lies very close to the Indo-Nepal border, the project could be a major security concern for India as well due to the long-term presence of Chinese personnel in the area."Since the deal was struck between two organizations, which have no relation with Lumbini, keeping its actual stakeholder (Nepal) in dark, we have no obligation to recognize it," said Nepal's culture secretary Mod Raj Dotel told The Himalayan Times.
There is resentment in Nepal that such a deal was signed in Beijing by undermining the host nation's sovereignty and doubts are being raised about the real motive behind the project.
A meeting of foreign ministry officials on Wednesday to discuss the deal after reports about it started appearing in local media decided that Nepal government has nothing to do it.
The Unesco office in Nepal also denied any knowledge about the deal and is "unhappy" with it. The APECF website available only in Chinese doesn't provide much detail about the project.
Another issue that has raised concerns in Nepal is the presence of Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda as co-chairman of APECF and former crown prince Paras Shah as member.
Two weeks ago UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon sent an emissary to Nepal who urged Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal to stop all developmental work at Lumbini for a year.
The APECF-UNIDO deal also overlooked the Lumbini Development Trust, a government body entrusted with implementing the master plan for the area developed by Japanese planner Kenzo Tange in 1978.
"The APECF could be part of a calibrated game plan that is economic, political and geopolitical. Or it could be nothing of that sort, we have no clue amidst the murk and mystery," wrote senior journalist Kanak Mani Dixit in Republica.
The project if implemented will witness a surge in Chinese presence in Lumbini as contracts are likely to be handed to Chinese firms. This is one area of concern for India.
"This implies a long-term Chinese presence, and….the mushrooming of illegal Chinese settlements along Nepal's border with India," wrote Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary (cabinet secretariat), government of India and a security and intelligence expert in DNA.
Lumbini is one of the most sacred sites for millions of Buddhists all over the world and nearly 500,000 of them from various sects as well as other tourists visit the area every year.