In a June interview with the BBC World Service during his UK visit, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli faced a question on the environmental impact of the proposed Nijgadh International Airport. Oli responded: “If we cut 2.5 million trees, we can plant five million of them by acquiring necessary lands.”
That PM Oli was asked the question indicates growing international concern over the possible impact of the Nijgadh airport, which is projected as Nepal’s second international airport after the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). Despite government assurances that more trees will be planted than felled, environmentalists are not convinced. Besides the lobbying to change the airport’s proposed site, a group of environmentalists have knocked on the Supreme Court’s doors.
Last Friday, the court ruled that the government had to hold the entire construction process, including the felling of trees. Next week, the apex court will hear arguments from both from government and the environmentalists, and deliver a final verdict. Government authorities defend the plan of an airport in Nijgadh, arguing that it is the best airport location in the plains.
The plan to build a second international airport goes back over 25 years. Two major plane crashes in 1992—Thai Airways, which claimed 310 lives, and Pakistan Airlines, which claimed 300 lives—highlighted the need for another international airport, according to government officials. Subsequently, the Nepal Engineering Consultancy Services Center Limited was entrusted with identifying a suitable location for an airport in the plains. The company submitted its report in 1995, suggesting that Nijgadh could be appropriate. In the late 1990s, there were efforts to build an airport, but they failed to make any headway.
After the formation of the current government in 2018, then Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari revived the initiative. But when the Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) was endorsed and made public last year, the airport’s construction suddenly became a major concern for environmentalists. Earlier, environmental impact was not a prominent issue, but has become a global concern of late thanks to the growing impacts of climate change.
Environmentalists cite a few issues to justify scrapping the plan for an airport in Nijgadh. First, they allege, the EIA report is flawed, as it was prepared by copy-pasting sections of the EIAs for other hydropower projects. Second, a huge number of trees—2.5 million according to the EIA report—will be felled for the airport. Following the protests, government officials have been trying to convince the environmentalists (and others) that they do not plan to cut down so many trees. Third, the proposed area is a wildlife habitat and many endangered and important animals are likely to be affected. Fourth, 8,045 hectares of land has been allocated for the airport, raising questions over the necessity of such a huge area. (See box for other environmental impacts.)
Government officials, however, accuse the environmentalists of trying to block the airport at the behest of foreigners. They say compensatory trees will be planted by identifying possible areas, but progress on negotiations remains elusive.
Arguing that Nijgadh is the best location for the airport, former Captain Prachanda Jung Shah, who worked in aviation for 40 years, says the government has failed to come up with a concrete plan for the airport. “There is no clarity on the Detailed Project Report (DPR). It seems the government’s only focus is on cutting down the trees without any credible plan, which has raised doubts,” he adds.
To justify the selection of Nijgadh, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) has come up with a whiter paper, which says: “The TIA’s capacity has reached a saturation point, so we urgently need a second international airport. Nijgadh provides wider airspace.” What also enlarges the airport’s scope, the white paper further argues, is that passengers from the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh can use it. Additionally, it says, fuel price will be lower, given the shorter distance to the border town of Birgunj, the main trading point between Nepal and India. The paper further states that air and sound pollution will be minimal as the proposed site is located in a dense forest region.
The government has designated the airport as a national pride project. The present EIA comprises airport, its infrastructures and airport city. The proposed second international airport is rated as an ICAO category 4F, comprising two parallel runways with a minimum length of 3km, taxiways, airline set-up, hangers, communication, water supply and sanitation services, as well as a provision for hotels and residential facilities in adjacent areas. “Building an airport in Nijgadh will have a big environmental impact,” says Prabhu Budathoki, an environmentalist. “So we are requesting that the site be changed.”
He cautions that as our domestic resources are insufficient for the airport, we have to raise funds from international investors, “who are unlikely to fund projects that have a big environmental impact, a prominent global agenda now.” The proposed site has major tiger and elephant corridors, he adds, arguing that an old feasibility study cannot reflect the changing national, regional and international environmental contexts and issues.
And then there is the Madhes factor. Nijgadh lies in Province 2, the stronghold of Madhes-based parties, which say that the government is building the airport without consulting them.
“The federal government has not consulted us on such a big airport in Province 2. We also want to build an airport but environmental concerns should be first addressed,” says Raj Kishor Yadav, a senior leader of the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal. “The government has failed to take important stakeholders into confidence”