Is Nijgadh International Airport Relevant?

The Nijgadh International Airport is a proposed hub-airport located in Kolhabi at a distance of approximately 68 kilometres from Kathmandu. Initially, when plans were being drawn up, there was a target of completing the construction of the airport by 2025 with an estimated investment of $6.7 billion. If and when the airport is constructed, it will be the largest in South Asia and the fourth largest in the world in terms of land area. The airport was intended to relieve expected capacity restraints at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. Stakeholders and experts endorsing the project are of the opinion that a second international airport at Nijgadh is necessary as in recent years, the TIA has been plagued by frequent air traffic congestion amidst other challenges.

As per available data, the government has already spent over Rs two billion on the project so far. According to officials of Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, nearly Rs 800 million has been distributed as compensation to the project-affected people. Last year, Rs 300 million was spent to prepare a revised master plan for the airport. All this amidst a controversy based on the environment impact assessment which shows that more than 2.4 million trees would have to be cut down to build the facility also displacing the wildlife and making the area prone to flood risks.

CAAN started the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the airport site in 2016. A report was submitted to the Ministry of Forests and Environment, which approved it on May 23, 2018. Under pressure of the Right to Information Act and pressure from environmentalists, the 1800-page document was made public and drew widespread criticism from environmental activists across the country. For the past year, environmentalists have been unrelentingly campaigning against the construction of the airport, arguing that the damage caused to the environment and biodiversity would be irreparable. Environmentalists also have doubts about the government’s plan of action. The feasibility reports and Detailed Project Report have not been made transparent by the government which raises even more questions.

As the controversy aggravated, the Supreme Court recently issued a verdict to stop the construction of the airport. There were also questions raised as to whether the court could directly interfere in the executive decision on development works.

In this edition of Business 360, we spoke to a few stakeholders on whether they think the government should go ahead with its plans for the construction of the airport, or forgo it?

Ujjwal Upadhyay

Consultant: Development, Environment, Livelihood

The need for an international airport in the periphery of Kathmandu has become extremely important. The current international airport, Tribhuvan International Airport, is considered unsafe as per international standards due to the complex topography of Kathmandu and the added pollution making visibility for airplanes more difficult. In view of the plain topography and better visibility supporting sound aviation facilities, Nijgadh Airport’s importance is clearly seen but at what cost?

The Nijgadh International Airport being a long-pending project came with its own obstacles. Before any big projects such as hydropower projects, road expansion projects or airport projects are constructed, a Detailed Project Report (DPR) report is required to continue the project but feasibility and DPR reports were not transparent or possibly not conducted at all. Similarly, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is equally important to foresee and to ensure social and environmental safety for sustainable development by measuring the possible adverse environmental impacts likely to be caused by projects and seeking their alternatives. But in the case of Nijgadh Airport, the EIA report was not found convincing and also concrete. The report rather looks like a ‘cut-paste’ document from some other hydropower project.

In my opinion, construction of the Nijgadh Airport indicates a couple of things. First, it raises a big question on whether the airport is really essential, especially in the wake of natural and rich forests of significant economic and ecological value. It is one of the most pristine ecological hotspots located in the region where flagship species like elephants and Bengal tigers live and migrate through. The Sal (Shorea robusta) trees that are present there are of extremely high value costing around 2,000 euros per tree. Additionally, it affects many endangered species of global importance such as migratory birds and long-distance migratory umbrella species like the wild Asiatic Elephant. Such elephants routinely migrate through the same route. Upon construction of the airport infrastructure, the herd of elephants will keep taking the same routes destroying whatever comes in their way. Elephants may take alternative routes which may compromise settlement areas adding more losses to the community leading to loss of property and lives. Also, the proposed airport site is also a groundwater recharge zone. A low lying, densely populated settlement in Parsa and Bara districts fully depend on the groundwater that is recharged underneath.

As of now, the Supreme Court has ordered to stop the construction of Nijgadh Airport especially because of the biohazard attributes while constructing the airport and the irreversible damage it will cause to the natural environment. Many environmentalists had raised their voice and filed a petition against it which gathered international attention.

Naveen Adhikari

Assistant Professor, Central Department of Economics, Tribhuvan University

The environment-economy trade-off is a classic debate. Economic activities such as infrastructure generally come at the cost of environmental degradation, especially in the initial stage of the development, as the country may not have enough economic capacity to cope and compensate for environmental losses. Environmental economics rules out both extremes and proposes a solution with careful assessment of the benefits and costs – benefits one can realise from increased economic activities, and costs are associated with the environmental damages.

There are three questions the country is currently facing regarding Nijgadh Airport: Whether there is a need for a big airport such as the one proposed in Nijgadh? Should we build such a big airport in Nijgadh? And what next with the recent verdict of the Supreme Court?

Relating to the first question, there is no denying that Nepal has to have a bigger airport with better capacity, better facilities, and better connectivity. The existing Tribhuvan International Airport, Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara International Airport don’t have the capacity to substitute for the proposed Nijgadh Airport, especially considering future needs. Given the current modest economic growth of the country, increase in domestic per capita income and projected growth of air-fleet passengers all warrant a bigger airport. Therefore, there is no denying that Nepal should opt for a bigger airport if Nepal has to catch up with the high growth trajectory.

The answer to whether we should build such a big airport in Nijgadh is also more or less well established. Nijgadh has a locational advantage as it centres around the major economic hubs and, most importantly, connects the capital city in an hour where there is high demand. Therefore, building an airport nearby such as Nijgadh is also a no deny. The third and perhaps most important question is whether we should make it exactly at the place proposed. Answering this question needs a careful assessment. As said earlier, the debate centres around whether we place value on environmental conservation or value the infrastructure that supports economic growth and opens a window for prosperity.

The fundamental problem has been the lack of credible shreds of evidence towards both costs and benefits, particularly on the cost side. Severe and frequent questions have been raised against the quality, coverage and methodological approach of the Environmental Impact Assessment report prepared earlier. The non-market environmental valuation is always a challenging and complex issue. Many consider the loss of biomass forests a fundamental problem. However, the true cost of environmental damage is multi-faceted, ranging from loss of biomass forest, loss of habitats, ecological services, and many more. A valid account of these aspects would help bring the debate into a more empirical and evidence base issue. I believe even those who value environmental protection more and the message of the Supreme Court too do not to oppose the need for a bigger airport; the intention is rather to gather more credible evidence. Therefore, there is an urgent need to gather more evidence by employing a more profound methodology with a credible and trustworthy independent panel of experts.

I believe gathering more evidence will help answer the third question of what next. In my opinion, the verdict of the Supreme Court is not to oppose the need of an airport, but its intention is to ask for a plan with more pieces of evidence on account of costs and benefits. Even if environmental prices are too high, there are always alternatives. This should not be tied up with the end of our dream of a bigger airport. And the alternatives lie within the vicinity of Nijgadh – redesign, realignment, and relocation could offer a win-win situation.

Rupesh Joshi

Director, Marketing, Sales & Ground Handling, Buddha Air

Nijgadh International Airport is definitely important and one of the main reasons is that Tribhuvan International Airport has reached its saturation point. Another reason for Nijgadh being extremely crucial is because, in the current aviation scenario of Nepal, lots of new airports are being constructed but they are not operational as both domestic and international airports.

In the case of domestic airports, every other district has started constructing one but given the circumstances of them being built in close proximity, it is not feasible to operate flights. The investors, GoN and Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal have not been able to profit from the airports, whatsoever. The major problem that is seen in our country is there is no market study at all, people have started to build airports due to political power and the want to make one in their hometown and the question now is, till when?

Similarly, while speaking about international airports, we now have the Gautam Buddha International Airport (GBIA) and Pokhara International Airport. The GBIA has started operations and Pokhara Airport will probably start operating from January next year. Now, while looking at the feasibility of these airports in the context of Nepal, we are a comparatively small country and is it really important to have four big international airports when the distance between them is minimum?

The Nijgadh Airport is an old pending project. If the government was able to build it before the two aforementioned international airports and was able to link Pokhara and Bhairahawa, it would have been the absolute best. But now, that is out of context. Another problem that we can see in the international airports is that they are being constructed through loans from China. There are also problems with routes for these two international airports but recently Jazeera Airways started flights to GBIA which is a good sign but we still do not know about the feasibility in the long run.

Kathmandu being the central hub, a new airport is definitely important and we can see the need for Nijgadh Airport but for that, a proper study is needed. But again having four international airports within the periphery of 200km will not be fruitful. If we could have a proper study and functioning of the two international airports, we wouldn’t have to build a fourth international airport.

The airports will definitely benefit the domestic airline companies but our focus should be on serving international flights as they are what we need the most at the moment. We need to generate revenues and profits but there seems to be an obstacle in these two newly-made airports.

While speaking about the decision made by the Supreme Court, they have looked at the environmental factors and that is absolutely necessary as well. But for us, from the aviation point of view, it looks like the court has made a wise decision as well because we don’t want to be the next Sri Lanka; building infrastructure with huge loans will bring the whole country down as we can witness that we lack proper study of any project. For a country like Nepal, road connectivity is vital and we should be focusing on it. Four international airports in close proximity do not make sense and will just be a burden to pay the loans.

Advocate Sanjay Adhikari

Public Interest Litigator

The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal had conducted a study of eight areas for the airport and they chose Nijgadh; my question to them was why Nijgadh particularly but they blatantly said it was confidential. I wanted to understand this project a little more because the initial reports that were given to the public were extremely inappropriate and fishy. Projects as such are called national pride projects and my first thought and question was that there is huge investment in this particular project and it definitely is being made by using the money of the general public. What if we are not able to generate profits and are stuck with loans and why was it confidential when it is a national pride project?

I have been working on Nijgadh Airport as pro bono. It’s been four years that I have been fighting this case and while studying the case and the EIA reports, it was a total blunder. The EIA reports are extremely important to understand the environmental factors of the project but the EIA doesn’t make any sense and is copied from a hydropower project.

To understand the Nijgadh Airport project, we have to dive into history. In 2041 BS, Parsa Wildlife Reserve was established which is close to the Nijgadh area, and in 2052 BS a feasibility study was conducted. The study claimed that the land in Nijgadh was not feasible for forestry and agriculture and that the removal of trees would also be easy as they are of low height. It also states that the wildlife is almost 20 kms away and the deforestation of the trees would not affect the birds and animals. But the Parsa Wildlife Reserve’s area was extended by seven kms to accommodate the increasing population of tigers in 2072 BS. As the area was extended, all the research that was conducted before 2072 BS became null and it doesn’t have any legal validity. Similarly, there was a more suitable land to make the airport. It is called Dumarwana near Nijgadh but the only reason the airport is not being constructed there is because of the high land value and high compensation that needs to be paid to the locals. This land is further away from the wildlife reserve as well. Meanwhile the Nijgadh area also is the path for wild elephants. The construction of the airport will hamper this.

The Supreme Court looks at all the components while taking a decision. It looks and checks all the facts and figures that exist. Airports like Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara International Airport were deemed impossible projects but they are in operation now. These airports are alternative airports. We must understand that the Supreme Court is not against the idea of making a new airport, just about the choice of Nijgadh as a location.


Share This Post


Business 360 is a magazine that delivers on quality business news content, profiles of entrepreneurs and leaders, features on issues that matter, articles that assess and analyze policy and delivery mechanisms in the world of trade and commerce

Related Post