Aviation experts say that no other international airport can serve the purpose of the Nijgadh International Airport, while environment experts claim that the construction of the airport would harm the natural habitat. People’s views are divided.
On May 26, the Supreme Court, the apex court of Nepal, passed its final decision ordering the government to stop all the construction-related activities at the Nijgadh International Airport site. Though the order in writing is still awaited, Court Spokesperson said, the government is mandated to cancel its decision to construct a modern international airport in Nijgadh, an alternative airport proposed three decades ago. However, the current Deuba-led government is reluctant to follow the order and has separated a budget to keep the construction of the airport afloat despite the controversies. Aviation experts say that neither the Gautam Buddha International Airport (GBIA) nor the Pokhara Regional International Airport can serve the purpose of the Nijgadh International Airport as both are destination airports, Environment experts claim that the construction of the airport would harm the natural habitat. People’s views are divided.
The coalition government has said that the Nijgadh International Airport Project will be taken forward by preparing an investment structure for the project through Investment Board Nepal. Finance Minister Janardan Sharma presented the fiscal year 2022/23 budget draft on May 30 and announced to take the project development work forward through Investment Board Nepal by determining the investment structure.
Sanjeev Gautam, former Director-General of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal shares that the Supreme Court’s decision to bar the construction of Nijgadh international airport has come as a legal decision.
“However, we don’t have another appropriate place for the construction of a full-fledged international airport that can serve the country. While respecting the Supreme Court’s legal decision we cannot overlook the fact that because of this legal verdict we might end up not having much-needed suitable modern-day capacity handling international airports to facilitate the nation”, he opines.
He shares that the site selection and airport construction are the technical undertakings that involve several activities and take a long period.
Nijgadh airport project has also been going through the same process described by Gautam. According to experts, the selection of the airport project site is very sensitive. While determining the SIA site as Nijgadh, several factors like topography, distance from the capital and India border, geological conditions, airspace availability, existing infrastructure, traffic demand, and the possibility of future expansions, and many more were considered.
Similarly, Tri Ratna Manadhar, former Director-General of CAAN shares that people are making controversies about Nijgadh Airport, stating that it would destroy the environment, but there was no discussion about the positive impact the airport will have in that reason.
“Himalayan Route will come into operation after the airport is functional. Flights to and from Hong Kong and Kunming to Delhi, Mumbai and Middle Eastern countries will go through this route. These destinations currently handle about 100 regular passenger flights and the same number of cargo flights per week. A mid-range jet consumes a minimum of 2,200 litres per hour, while a large aircraft consumes up to 11,800 litres of fuel. A litre of aviation fuel emits 3.16 kg of carbon. The Himalayan Route will reduce flight distance in this region by around 210 kilometres on each flight. Now you can estimate how much fuel is saved annually and how much carbon emissions are reduced,” Manandhar opines.
The Nijgadh International project was designed three decades ago, and the development process for the international airport was first undertaken 13 years ago, and roughly more than Rs.3 billion has been spent already. An environmental and social impact assessment was carried out by the Ministry of Tourism in February 2017. The report suggests that more than 2.4 million small and large trees need to be chopped down to build the international airport.
Experts stress that the EIA report has been criticized for being an informational limitation, inadequate analysis of impacts, and proposed mitigation measures is not sufficient. The particular criticism is that the government is going to clear 2.4 million trees over 8,045 hectares, for the construction of the proposed airport.
According to Gautam, the Second International Airport Project (SIAP) proposed (a) construction of an ICAO standard international airport with required airport facilities and utilities such as two parallel 3.6 km long runways, taxiways, passenger and cargo terminals, aircraft maintenance complex, and other utilities in the first phase and government has decided to clear only 1900 hector areas including Tangia settlement which indicates that government is very serious for the protection of the environment and the remaining area will be considered as a protected zone for the airport.
It is categorically highlighted that the SIA project includes the development of an Airport City area adjacent to the airport, and has been repeatedly claimed that there is no rationale for developing a city very close to the airport at the cost of a biodiversity-rich forest area.
The government has clarified that the airport city will not be developed in the adjacent area of the airport because Nijgadh town in Nijgadh municipality is located about 5-6 km from the SIA site in Kohalbi municipality, and the government is preparing Smart City Master Plans for four urban towns including Nijgadh.
In this situation, the government has to delimit the airport area, confine it to the required areas of land, and provide the much-needed commitment for allocating the necessary budget to overcome the current problems, Gautam adds.
The proposed airport project is close to the capital - only 75 km away through the under-construction fast track. Likewise, the project covers 1,900 hectares of land which is expandable to 8,000 more hectares, to the full capacity.
Rajan Pokharel, the former Director-General shares that such criticism is pointless and against the development of the country. He adds that some people have manipulated the issues and caused riots against the project. It is an exaggeration that millions of trees have to be cut down. However, in reality the actual number of trees that need to be chopped off is far less, he shares.
According to Pokharel, around 100,000 trees need to be felled for the airport construction in the initial phase.
“We aren't starting the project in 8,000 hectares of land. The site in the initial phase will only cover an area of 1900 hectares. Likewise, it doesn't have the dense forest as described,” he shares adding that mostly bushes or shrubs need to be cleaned in the initial phase.
Similarly, Manandhar shares that considering the environmental aspect, the decision of the Supreme Court of the UK regarding the third runway project of Heathrow Airport in an environmentally conscious country like the United Kingdom can be taken as a precedent. The runway project, which has been under discussion since 1990, was approved by Parliament under Theresa May's government. The Heathrow project, which cost more than 14 billion pounds (21.84 trillion rupees), is considered to have a huge environmental impact.
A whole village had to be displaced, 761 concrete houses demolished, and a large part of London's outer ring road M25 had to be tunnelled under the runway. After locals filed a lawsuit against the government's decision, the court ruled that the project would not meet the British government's obligations under the Paris Climate Accord. However, the government did not remain silent. It appealed to the Supreme Court. Within three months, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate decision, saying the government's decision was right for the good of the country and the people, and allowed the Heathrow III, runway project to proceed.
Similarly, the environmental issue raised during the construction of Ataturk Airport in Turkey, and Navi Mumbai Airport in Mumbai was similar to Nijgadh. However, the development work was not stopped there. Similarly, airports have been built across the sea in Hong Kong, Japan, Maldives and many other countries, he shares.
Adding that the statement of Nepal Forest Technical Association that the construction of Nijgadh International Airport will cause the issue of deforestation and environmental impact in the press conference is incorrect, Manandhar adds that development and environmental protection can be brought together.
Aviation experts share that the development of a full-fledged international airport infrastructure would enhance Nepal’s connectivity with the rest of the world, accelerate economic development and cater air traffic growth. It would also help promote Nepal as a tourist destination, thereby increasing employment generation and service sector revenue which would help the further acceleration of economic growth of the country. Some opinions suggest that the plan of building the mega Nijgadh Airport project is not needed in the current context, and Nepal can never be a transit hub.
But, it is evident that Nepal is strategically located between India and China offering a realistic possibility of developing itself as a hub/transit airport, Gautam adds.
According to experts, most of the development projects in Nepal are selected without a detailed feasibility study. Even if the project is selected with a detailed feasibility study like Nijgadh International airport, government commitment, allocation of necessary budget, and other administrative and procedural hindrances delay the project implementation, and the same is true for Nijgadh international airport.
While many claims that the country does not need any additional international airports with three at place-Trbhuwan International Airport and Gautam Buddha International Airport in operation and one under construction in Pokhara, experts stress that is no alternative to a full-fledged airport of Nijgadh magnitude.
Transportation is the safest, fastest, and most reliable mode of transportation. Passenger traffic is growing spontaneously at the global, regional, and national levels. The air traffic history indicates that passenger growth doubled every 15 years since 1970. The traffic growth in Asia and the Pacific region is highest compared to other ICAO regions. The volume of air traffic, expressed in terms of air passengers, has increased considerably in Nepal. Nepal witnessed 9% traffic growth in the last decade, indicating that in the year 2023, TIA will not be able to cater to the rapid traffic growth.
Gautam Buddha International Airport is in operation for international operation, and Pokhara international airport is under construction and will be coming into operation in near future, but the total number of passenger handling capacity for both airports is not more than 2 million passengers annually. Nepal’s airports handled approximately 10.5 million domestic and international passengers in 2019. Nepal needs to handle almost 15 million passengers by 2024 if it is calculated the expected number of passengers based on the passenger growth. It is beyond the existing capacity in terms of available infrastructure, including TIA.
In this context, a full-fledged international airport is the need of time, and if we don't materialize this project, we will not be able to handle the air traffic demand. And if we can’t cater to increasing air traffic demand, then how will we have tourism and other business growth, Gautam questions.
In the meantime, on the government's decision to go ahead with the project and the contradiction associated with the project, Gautam shares that the government has to take into consideration all aspects of development project-related activities and solve issues whether it is environmental, human settlement, compensation dispensation etc. transparently and lawfully taking the concerned public stakeholders in confidence.
“I believe this will not create any legal dispute. Sustainable development means developing infrastructure whether physical or social, and addressing social and environmental concerns. Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore legislature, executive and judiciary must remain in their jurisdiction without intervening in each other’s scope and jurisdiction, Gautam shares.