Reality of Nijgadh and Yogesh’s burning desire

A detailed study of the project should be conducted first to ensure maximum protection from biological, environmental and social impacts of Nijgadh Airport. It is appropriate to expedite the project on the basis of its environmental impact assessment that is based on new study.

Yogesh Bhattarai (Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation), who is among the last few ministers inducted in the cabinet, has drawn media headlines right after his appointment. The proactiveness he has demonstrated in the first two weeks of his appointment as a minister shows that he has a burning desire to do something. While a section of people have termed this activism as little exaggeration, some others seem to have started appreciating his gestures. But it is not good to have either over expectation or get disappointed with him in this short span of time. Nevertheless, some of the raw statements he made in his initial days as a minister have made people apprehensive if he will also be one to enjoy making publicity stunt rather than taking concrete actions.

The second international airport to be built in Nijagadh is a project of national concern and importance. It is natural to see mega project falling on the top of the priority list of any concerned minister. It is good to note that Bhattarai as a Tourism Minister has put this project as one of his priorities. The goal to lay foundation stone of this project within this year cannot be considered otherwise. But the attempt to make it a matter of publicity stunt raises several questions. It has been already 25 years since the idea of this project was first conceived . Why did it then take such a long time? What could be the inherent complexities and challenges facing this  project? What kinds of manuerings various interest groups may have been making? The announcement to lay foundation stone of the project with the pesence of several hundred thousands of people risks becoming a cheap and unbelievable statement if he failed to look into these issues before making any such announcement.

The second international aiport is one of a few important agenda for the development, expansion and reforms of tourism sector. It is necessary for Bhattarai to acknowledge the fact that this project has a number of complexities and challenges and inability to address them could prove to be a major factor behind the failure of this project.

This is mainly because the government is moving ahead in an ad hoc style on the issue involving the construction of Nijgadh International Airport. All the decisions and actions taken till date for the construction of this aiport seem to have been taken in ad hoc basis. Bhattarai has to conduct adequate study and increase interaction with concerned experts prior to expediting the works of this project. He must be able to make a course correction if the project is to be made a success.

Let us look at the background of the construction of the airport and the actions taken so far in this regard.

It is known to all that the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu is the only international airport in Nepal. This is already small and crowded in view of ever increasing pressure of air passengers. It is found that around 3.8 million passengers on an average have been taking services from this airport each year. In fact, it has been already long since the need of a new international airport with moden technology and new structures was realized. In particular, an expert group in 2051 BS had suggested building the second international aiport in Nijgadh.

The experts’ group had chosen Nijgadh as the site of the second international airport after conducting technical study of various eight places including Biratnagar, Janakpur, Bharatpur, Nijgadh, Nepalgunj, Dhangadhi, Surkhet and Bhairahawa in the country. The government expedited the construction work nearly after one and half a decade after the technical study first made the recommendation. As per the agreement reached with the governmet, a Korean company Landmark Worldwide submitted a report of a detailed feasibility study in 2068 BS. But the government has not publicized the report yet. It is said that the report has been shelved somewhere in the ministry itself. The reason why it has not been released to public is because of the agreement reached with the Landmark Worldwide.

The government announced to build the project in Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) model with private sector investment when the project was listed. In the agreement reached with the Landmark Worldwide as well, the government had given same investment model in priority. According to a white paper issued by Tourism Ministry, Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) has not publicized the report as the agreement bars giving any information or documents to the third party without prior consent from the Landmark Worldwide. The government, however, has endorsed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) without the Detailed Project Report. The EIA report endorsed by the government on May 23, 2018 is the only a major written document available of the project.

The second international airport has become an issue of controversy with the endorsement of its EIA report. Environmental activist Bhusan Tuladhar in one of his interviews said, “The EIA endorsed by the governmen is not based on the fact. The report copied from a portion of some hydropower projects has failed to make proper assessment of environmental and social impacts of the project.”

The government expedited process to cut down 2.4 million trees after the endorsement of EIA. Environmental activists like Tuladhar, forest experts and civil society then took the streets. Although the government shelved its plan to cut down the trees following the protests, it has failed to come up with clear blueprint as to how it intends to take the project forward. Fencing work has been completed in the airport construction area. Acquisition process of nearly 58 Bighas of land has already been completed and process is currently underway to acquire some more land. But there has not been any initiatives made to resolve the question and controversy that was sparked by the EIA report. Onus lies on Bhattarai to find proper resolution of these questions to expedite the project in new way.

First, is it necessary to cut down 2.4 million trees as recommended by the EIA report? Former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal-led Tourism and Civil Aviation Sub-Committee under the Parliamentary Committee on International Relations has suggested cutting down as minimum trees as possible and give priority to build airport in areas convered by shrubs and with sparse human settlement, while protecting environment and ecology.

Chief of Nijgadh Airport Project Om Sharma, however, says the number of trees that needs to cut down is highly inflated. “In my study we just need to cut down around 270,000 trees. Of them, only 60,000 trees and some shrubs need to be cleared in the first phase of construction work.  These include around 10,000 Saal i.e. Shorea robusta trees.

However, environmental activists and forest experts are up against cutting down any trees. Minister Bhattarai needs to think about this as parliamentary committee and project chief have been arguing that the project should be developed by cutting down as minimum trees as possible.

Second, is it necessary to have 8,045 hectares of land to build the airport?  Questions have also been raised over the proposed area of the airport. Tribhuvan International Airport is in just about 250 hectares of land. Of course, we need bigger airport than this. But do we need an airport that proposes to have over 8,000 hecters of land. This will be several times bigger than any other big aiports that are currently in operation in the world. This raises a natural question:  Why do we need that big airport by destroying forest?

The EIA report has stated that all structures of the airport can be built in maximum 1,300 hectares of land and airport city and future settlements can be developed in the remaining 6,845 hectares of land. This has raised another question. Do we need to develop a city along with the airport? The sub-committee headed by former Prime Minister Nepal has given a clear instruction not to build smart city by destroying forest.

Third, is it possible to develop this mega project without detailed project report? It is difficult to even hear this proposition. This Rs 7 billion worth project does not even have a detailed project report yet. The EIA report of the project has also courted several questions and controversies. No one has said that the construction of Nijgadh International, which can potentially be a milestone for bringing economic prosperity in the country, should not be built. But it is not wise to build the airport, flouting fundamental process of the development projects. Thus, it is important to first conduct biological, environmental and social impacts of the Nijgadh Airport to ensure maximum conservation. It is appropriate to expedite the construction work only after conducting EIA on the basis of these impacts.

If this national pride project is to be made a success, the newly-appointed Minister has to start a fresh plan that includes a detailed project report to take this project forward in a fresh way. While doing so, some other aspects should also not be undermined.  As for an example, conservation of forest areas should be put in the center. It will sound like an extremist view to say that not even single tree should be cut down. But an alternative plan should be developed to compensate the loss of absolute minimum trees that needs to cut down for building this airport.

The project seems to affect even the water sources in the forest. Their protection should be kept on the top of the priority list. Protection of wildlives and birds is another big issue facing the project. According to forest experts, this airport adjoining with Parsa National Wildlife Reserve falls within the corridors of various wild animals including elephants. Elephants have their own corridors. Elephants and tiger routinely wander through these corridors. While developing the project, it is important to see how the impacts on these wild animals can be minimized or seek alternative measures to address that. According to Warden at Prasa Wildlife Reserve Amir Maharjan, any obstruction in the elephant corridors could result in human-wildlife conflict. “Elephants tend to destroy whatever come on their way. Therefore, protection of their corridors or alternative measures should be sought,” he said.

This project can be national pride project only when a detailed project report is developed with a view of conserving various aspects such as forest, wildlife, drinking water sources and inundation. In addition to these, human settlements and their economic and social upliftment should also be the central concern of the project.

The second international airport in Bara district lies in Kolbi Municipality and Jitpur-Simara Sub-metropolitan City. Tangiya Basti, Matiyaani and Khathghat area in particular fall in the airport’s catchment area. While the government has already expedited process to acquire land in Matiyani and Kathghat, it has yet to come up with a plan to settle the issue of acquiring land in Tangiya since residents in this settlement do not have land ownership certificates. It is a challenging task for the government to relocate and manage nearly 1,496 households here.

These are some of the important challenges and complexities that lie before Nijgadh International Airport. The first agenda of Minister Bhattarai should be make a minute study of all these aspects of the project rather than speeches and committments. As for now, it is the conclusion of EIA report that constitute the government position. Civil society members, environmental activists, parliamentary committees and the project chief have already said that it is not appropriate to expedite the project in line with the current EIA report. But the government does not seem to have given due consideration to the suggestions given by the project chief and the parliamentary sub-committee formed under the leadership of Former Prime Minister Nepal. The issue of investment to build the airport is a matter that has not been discussed much. Thus, it is important to have clarity on all these issues first. The steps of Minister Bhattarai should be directed towards preparing a detailed project report of the airport while making review of suggestions and questions raised from various sections and levels of the society.

While doing all these, how much should we exploit natural resources in the name of development and prosperity? What should be their limit? Minister Bhattarai would do better if he could think about these vital questions as well.

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