by Hari Prasad Shrestha 6 August 2022
Nepalese elites tend to be divisive in extremity – for or against in any game changer development project, based on their basic expertise and preoccupied perceptions. From construction of international airport to hydropower projects and electric-powered railways to other infrastructures, almost all mega projects are facing problem of uncertainties, delays or obstructions due to deep rooted disagreements and controversies. The ill-fate of such projects is blackening the fate of Nepal.
Nijgadh Airport is the latest example of how its construction delayed since 1992 as results of disputes and divisions between the environmentalists and the government authorities. It was on hold and indecisive as some campaigners on environment were opposing its construction at Nijgadh, and on their behalf, a case was filed in the Supreme Court of Nepal by Senior Advocate Prakash Mani Sharma and Ranju Hajur Pandey, demanding to put a stop to construction of airport at Nijgadh as it would chop down huge dense forest, disappear endangered animals and destroy the environment.
Why is Nijgadh appropriate location for international airport, as per government report- in 1995, a pre-feasibility study of eight different sites in the plains from Biratnagar in the east to Nepalgunj in the west of the country , Nijgadh was recommended as most suitable based on factors like topography, distance from the capital and the border with India, land availability and requirement, obstruction zoning, runway orientation, space for future expansions viability, environmental aspects, accessibility, etc.
After long hearings on the writ petition filed by the advocates, the extended full bench of five justices of the Supreme Court paved a way-out by passing a final verdict, which quashed previous all decisions of the government regarding the Nijgadh airport.
According to court verdict, three justices ordered the authorities to build the airport by conducting a proper environmental impact assessment ensuring that the environmental damage is minimal, however, the decision did not specify where the new facility should be built.
Another two justices observed the need for building the airport within the Nijgadh area by ensuring minimal damage to the environment.
Moreover, the court has found the Environmental Impact Assessment report approved by the Ministry of Forest and Environment on May 23, 2018, to be erroneous and said the decision to fell trees on 8,045.79 hectares and other decisions taken as per the report were faulty.
While the environmental impact assessment should follow due legal procedures, the size of the airport and its capacity should be determined through proper consultations with environmentalists, wildlife experts, airport management experts, economists, sociologists and administrative experts with all possible alternatives to reduce damage and losses, according to the decision.
The proposed Nijgadh International Airport in southern plain of Nepal, has been designed as one of the largest airports in South Asia, which will be connected by multi-billion dollar under construction, Kathmandu Terai Fast Track Road. This hub airport would not only ease air congestions in Kathmandu Airport but it would be also capable to fast transport cheap bulk air cargo, supporting national supply system and substituting surface transports up to great extents in case of emergency and blockade situations as well.
Currently the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu has a passenger’s movements of 7.5 million and cargo movements in average 20,000 tons of maximum in a year.
If we compare these statistics with Delhi and Mumbai airports in our neighboring country India, each airport is transporting an annual passenger traffic of over 40 million and around one million tons of cargo, which is six times and fifty times higher than movements of passengers and cargo compared to Kathmandu airport respectively.
Nepal being a country of huge tourism possibilities, this airport could handle additional millions of tourists and other travelers to Kathmandu valley, central region and Terai province of Nepal.
Moreover, Nepal being a land lock country, air cargo transport in high volume could play significant role in transforming its economy. And a huge hub airport is must for Nepal, whether it is in Nijgadh or in other locations.
How is air cargo transportation being fast growing globally can be assessed by capacity and movements of cargo from the hub airports. According to Airport Council International (ACI), the world’s busiest airports in terms of cargo volume is Memphis International (MEM) in the US state of Tennessee and Hong Kong International (HKG). The ACI’s data shows that both the airports processed around 4.5 million tons of cargo in 2020, which are known as ‘Super Hub,’ airports. Nepal needs airport capable to handle at least one million tons of cargo annually.
The discussions of constructing a new international airport of huge capacity in Terai of Nepal initiated in 1992, following the crash of Thai Airways International Flight 311 and Pakistan International Airlines Flight 268, which claimed the lives of 113 and 167 people respectively.
In February 2008, the cabinet of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal decided to construct the airport under ‘Build Own Operate and Transfer’ (BOOT) model. In March 2010, Nepal Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation signed a contract with a Korean company, Landmark Worldwide (LMW) to conduct a detailed feasibility study of the airport. LMW conducted the study at a cost of US$3.55 million and submitted a plan to the government on 2 August 2011.
In March 2015, Turkish Airlines Flight 726 skidded off a runway during a poor visibility approach to Kathmandu, and the airport was shut down for four days. A month later, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 Richter scale, followed by an aftershock of 7.3 hit central Nepal. If Nepal had an alternative international airport, it would have been easier in managing distribution of relief materials effectively. The subsequent events have allowed Nepal government to lobby for the airport.
The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment outlines the construction of the project in two phases. A 3600×45 meter single runway facility with a 3600×23 meter parallel taxiway and 22 aircraft stands to accommodate 6.7 million passengers per year at an 81,000 sq. meter terminal building will be constructed at an estimated cost of US$1.172 billion in the first phase of the development. The ultimate plan is to build a 720,000 sq. meter international terminal handling 60 million passengers per year, 174 parking bays capable of accommodating Airbus A380, and two parallel 3600-meter runways.
After Supreme Court verdict on Nijgadh airport, both the opponents and supporters of airport have started to interpret the court decision according to their own knowledge. The opponents interpret that the court doesn’t say the airport is not required, it only says don’t construct it in the proposed spot which may cause a huge loss to the environment and biodiversity.
The project area lies on a densely forested area, about 90 per cent. The proposed airport area is a home to numerous species including 500 species of birds, 23 endangered flora and 22 endangered wildlife species. The area also lies proximity to Parsa National Park, which protects endangered wildlife including Bengal Tiger and Asiatic Elephant. Parsa particularly accounts for 18 of 235 (7.7%) of the tiger population in Nepal.
Instead of Nijgadh they recommend that Sarnath Forest Development Project located in Murtiya of Sarlahi district; covers 2700 hectares of newly planted Eucalyptus, which occupies1300 hectares of land however for International Airport and 600 hectares for other infrastructure.
Moreover, they argued that the best alternative of Nijgadh airport would be upgrading the existing international airport in Kathmandu. This includes increasing length of a solely operational runway 02/20, increasing length of Taxiway ‘G’ to meet thresholds of the runway, extending operational hours, alleviating immigration procedures, increasing parking bays, etc.
They also opined that the airport can be shifted towards Simara or towards the south of the proposed area. The 8,000 hectares is not required to construct the facility as proposed by the government. A modern facility could be constructed on 2,000 hectares which can host at least three runways if required in the future.
The supporters to construct airport in Nijgadh say that the court verdict is balanced, corrective and prescriptive, it hasn’t intervened in the executive’s authority to decide where to construct the airport. It has only said due legal process needs to be followed strictly.
And they also argue if the government opted to shift the airport to the south, it would reduce 75 percent of damage to the jungle in Bara. That means, the number of trees that need to be felled would come down to a maximum 500,000 [around 200,000 big trees and 300,000 pole sized trees] from the earlier plan to cut 2.4 million.
Their final interpretation seems to be similar with the government that the court decision has given authority to start new process for the international airport as it has not specified any new location or denied the Nijgadh area.
Immediate after court decision on Nijgadh, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba with presidents of political parties of government alliance visited the airport sites and assured to start fresh initiations to construct airport at Nijgadh with minimum environment damages.
The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation has decided to move forward the airport construction by forming a committee including experts from all required fields specified in the Supreme Court decision, to study and recommend on all aspects regarding construction of international airport at Nijgadh.
Even after court decision, if contentions between the environmentalists and the government in delaying this airport continues for long time, it would be easy for external players to get involved in the internal broil. As per media reports, our southern neighbor is concerned with this airport as it has been designed as one of largest hub airports in South Asia, which could affect hub airports of India.
General public and media in Nepal have an impression that India has a record to oppose and hinder mega projects in Nepal, which affects it. For example, India has not provided direct air routes to Gautam Buddha and Pokhara International Airports even after Nepal’s decades of continued requests.
Nepal has numerous projects of national prides of medium scales, however it lacks game changer projects, such as super hub international airport, cross border high speed railways, giant hydro power project, chemical fertilizer plant, high speed expressways, inland waterways so on. The early construction of Nijgadh International Airport connecting Kathmandu Tarai Madhesh Fast Track Road would be first mega game changer project to transform its economy in real sense.