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Editorial: Nijgadh’s alternative is Nijgadh

Editorial: Nijgadh’s alternative is Nijgadh

Much of the recent controversy over the proposed Nijgadh International Airport in Bara district could have been avoided. Successive governments pushed the ‘national pride project’ without a clear understanding of the trade-offs of building an airport smack-dab in the middle of a dense biodiversity-rich forest. Nor was there much of a plan on the resettlement of the villages that would be uprooted during its construction. As a part of a highly ambitious plan, 80 sq. km of land was cordoned off. It was three to four times the area covered by even the biggest airports in the world. Besides an international airport, the plan was also to build a smart city from the ground-up–with the whole enterprise expected to cost around an eye-watering $6.5bn.  

Most aviation experts reckon a fourth of the area being proposed is enough to build a world-class airport. This would not only dramatically lower project cost but also pose less of an environmental challenge. On the other hand, if the airport and surrounding structures were to sprawl over 80 sq. km, a whopping 2.4m trees would have to be felled. The idea of the smart city was also rather daft: there are plenty of nearby cities that can be easily upgraded to service the new airport. No wonder the Supreme Court had to intervene and ask the government to stop building the proposed airport that didn’t seem to be making any rhyme or reason.  

But there is also no alternative to Nijgadh. After a decade and half, the three airports purpose-built for international air-traffic–TIA, Pokhara and Bhairahawa–between them won’t be able to handle half the volume of expected air-traffic. Of all the proposed sites for an alternative international airport, Nijgadh is also the only place where international flights will be able to start their descent in Nepali airspace–a huge consideration given India’s reluctance to allow third-country carriers in its airspace.       

As many aviation experts have pointed out, a top-notch international airport can be built at Nijgadh for around $3bn, and with minimal environmental damage and disturbance to the lives and livelihoods of those living in the vicinity. Time then to go back to the drawing board.