In 1994, when Nijgad was identified as the site of Nepal’s planned new international gateway, traffic congestion at Kathmandu Airport was not as bad as it is today. It was difficult then to justify a new international airport so far from Kathmandu.
So, Nijgad was projected to be not just an airport serving the capital, but a regional hub for international destinations like Doha, Dubai and Singapore. Like everything else, the war and political wrangling delayed the project for decades.
The Communist government came to power with the promise of prosperity, and it is reviving the $6.7 billion Nijgad airport project as a catalyst for growth, and to take the pressure off of Kathmandu.
There is also concern Nijgad Airport will destroy 80sq km of the last remaining prime forest in the eastern Tarai, which is a wildlife corridor. Pic: Kiran Nepal
The Char Kose Jhari used to be a strip of dense malarial jungle in the Tarai separating the Chure Range from the Indian plains. After the eradication of malaria, the forests were cleared by settlers from the mountains and from India. Construction of the East-West Highway in the 1970s, transmission lines, the 1980 referendum, all helped shrink this primary hardwood forest to a few remaining patches.
Nijgad airport and the expressway linking it to Kathmandu will decimate the last remaining expanse of this once-vast jungle. In all, the Nepal Army is preparing to fell 2.4 million sal trees in a swath of 80sq km – wiping out the last remaining migration corridor for endangered wild elephants and tigers, depleting the buffer zone of the Parsa Wildlife Reserve, and removing vegetation that recharges groundwater. Conservationists also worry that a huge busy airport right next to a nature sanctuary will also disturb wildlife.
The airport is the latest example of the need to balance economic needs with environmental protection, even though the main argument against the project is its cost and economic viability. As the effects of a changing climate and noxious levels of pollution becoming increasingly more evident, countries across the globe have attempted to pursue a cleaner and more sustainable path to economic growth. The realisation that the environment is as important as development has taken hold, and governments are increasingly unwilling to compromise on the environmental front. Nepal, however, still seems to believe that development must come at any cost.
What is touted to become the biggest airport in South Asia in terms of area—the Nijgadh Airport, if built according to plan—will see 2.4 million trees felled and 1,476 households in the Tangiya Basti settlement resettled. A draft Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report in 2017 revealed that this massive swathe of the jungle would be flattened and scores of people would face eviction in the process of building the megaproject in Nijgadh, Bara. After the EIA was approved by the Ministry of Forest and the Ministry for Environment, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation went ahead with a proposal to cut down 770,000 trees during the first phase.
Environmentalists are right when they lament the widespread destruction that the airport will wreak havoc on the regional ecosystems. Clearing millions of trees will undoubtedly affect the habitats and migratory patterns of wildlife not just in Nepal but also across the border in India. The government needs to find a way to placate both sides. Perhaps it is time to consider that the airport needs not to be so large, especially for a country so small.