A mega-airport with an adjoining airport city is planned in Nijgadh, in the Bara District in southeastern Nepal. The government has repeatedly stated that the new airport, with a 80 square kilometer site, will be the largest, by area, in South Asia. The site is in the forested easern Tarai lowland region and situated between two rivers, Pashah to the west and Bakiya to the east. The northern boundary is the Mahendra Highway between the two rivers. Most of the site, about 90 per cent, is densely forested land, predominantly consisting of Shorea robusta trees, also known as Sal or Sakhua.
In January 2016 the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) was instructed to begin land acquisition, site clearance and resettlement of affected people and the Ministry of Soil Conservation was directed to fell trees and clear the site for the construction of primary and access roads to the airport site. The Tourism Minister said the project would be developed in phases, beginning with a single runway facility, with the accompanying airport city to be constructed at a later stage. In January 2017 the government assigned preparatory work on Nijgadh Airport to the Nepal Army, tasking it with building a perimeter road and an access road to the area earmarked for the runway, and clearing trees to make way for construction.
By May 2017 forest earmarked for Nijgadh Airport remained unfelled, but vast numbers of trees could be transformed from an obstacle to airport construction into a source of funds to enable it. Officials stated that about 600,000 trees will be felled for the first phase of the airport and that the market value of the lumber, estimated at nearly USD581 million, would be sufficient to pay for half of the USD1.172 billion construction costs. The Forest Ministry permitted the Tourism Ministry to conduct an EIA (environmental impact assessment) on the condition that 25 trees will be planted for every tree that is cut down. A newly planted forest could not replace the biodiversity of a long established natural ecosystem and tree planting on this scale this would be difficult to implement. A vast area would be required to accommodate planting of more than 15 million saplings.
Residents face displacement
Residents of Tangiya Basti, the settlement in the midst of the forest land earmarked for Nijgadh aerotropolis, face displacement. In June 2014 MoCTCA was attempting to settle disputes over compensation for land acquisition and people’s demands for resettlement arrangements. By March 2016 the task of collecting land details had been completed, with land valuation about to commence, along with issuing public notices for land acquisition. Land had been categorized as under individual ownership, public land and ‘unidentified ownership’, the majority belonging in the latter category.
A 35-day notice was published for landowners to apply for compensation in March 2017. The amount of compensation for land acquired for the airport had been confirmed and the notice required landowners to harvest their crops within a month, prohibiting them from cutting any trees or plants. But compensation was only available to the minority of residents with recognized land ownership. A report by Tourism Secretary Prem Kumar Rai stated that 110 households were eligible for compensation, with between 80 and 85 of these households agreeing to the compensation and the remainder reluctant to accept the government’s offer. The majority of residents facing eviction, about 1,400 households, were categorized as ‘squatters’. Nothing had been done to resettle the ‘squatters’ living on the construction site. In July 2017 the Himalayan News Service reported that the government’s preparations to acquire land for Nijgadh Airport had left residents of the Tangiya settlement, about 7,380 people, fearing their displacement and in a state of panic over their resettlement.
Tangiya Basti residents struggled for new homes and livelihood opportunities. The Tangiyabasti Stakeholders Committee stated that construction of the airport had made their future uncertain and held a press conference where they demanded rehabilitation. Residents facing eviction insisted upon replacement land and food supplies, provision of water, electricity and education in the place where they will be relocated, and one job for each of the affected families. Chair of the Tangiyabasti Stakeholders Committee, Ramesh Kumar Sapotka, said that they would refuse to vacate the area unless their demands were addressed.
Tangiya Basti residents have been living in limbo for years, knowing they face eviction for the long delayed airport. The settlement was established by the government for flood victims in 1975 and the majority of people living there are from the marginalized Tamang ethnic group. For more than 40 years the government has failed to fund essential services for their established settlement, or to support people’s own efforts to develop these services. Tangiya Basti residents lack electricity, a reliable drinking water supply, electricity, roads and schools.
Over 2.4 million trees could be felled
An Environmental & Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) of Nijgadh Airport prepared by GEOCE Consultants (p) Ltd. and submitted to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), confirmed a project area of 8,045 hectares. The first phase of the project entails clearing 1,450 hectares of forest, a recognizing a ‘major biological impact of loss of a total of 468,590 trees. The full project are, including the airport city, is 8,045 hectares. A total of 2,450,700 trees would be cleared. The stated number of people who will be displaced, 7,500, is higher than previous reports. The ESIA states that the majority of the people who face displacement are not authorized to occupy the government-owned lands but cannot be forcibly evicted without any compensation. The study recommended a compensation and rehabilitation management plan based on consultation with stakeholders, with options including cash compensation for property and hardship, rehabilitation according to duration of residence, land compensation and resettlement according to government policy.
Construction of Nijgadh Airport would destroy a vast swath of the last remaining forest in the eastern Tarai, a lowland region in the southern plains of Nepal. Felling such an enormous area would be the most serious deforestation in the area in the last 50 years. It is estimated that felling of over 2.4 million trees would prevent sequestration of 22,500 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere annually. As well as contributing to climate change this would deprive Nepal of earning USD1.4 million annually from the global carbon fund. Ongoing losses from deforestation to make way for the airport and airport city must be considered against the projected earnings from selling timber from the site. Forest and wildlife experts have advised on the biodiversity impacts of felling over 2.4 million trees. The site is a main corridor for wildlife migration, most importantly for Asian elephants, just one of the 23 species of mammals also including tigers and hyenas listed in the ESIA as present in the project area and surroundings. Great hornbills and cranes are among the listed bird species. Wildlife connectivity would be damaged over a wide area and Parsa National Park, only a few kilometres away, would be impacted.
Conservationists have raised the alarm over serious negative impacts on hydrological systems. As well as the Pashah River on the western boundary of the site and Bakiya River to the east there are small rivulets in the area. Disruption of rivers and removal of vegetation that recharges groundwater could cause water resources in surrounding areas to dry up. The airport could also cause floods downstream and would itself be susceptible to flooding by continuous and heavy rainfall. The site receives as much as 300 millimeters of rainfall in 24 hours; 200 millimeters of rain over a 24 hour period would be sufficient to inundate the airport.
Doubts over viability
A petition calling upon MoCTCA to stop construction of Nijgadh Airport pointed out that by the time the project is anticipated to be complete Nepal will already have three international airports, the established Kathmandu Airport plus Pokhara and Bhairhawa (Gautam Buddha) airports which are both being expanded and upgraded, arguing that such a high level of increase in airport capacity is unnecessary for a small country. Aviation analyst Hemant Arjyal cast doubts on the viability of the Nijgadh Airport project. The USD 6.7 billion price-tag for the full project is criticized as unaffordable. The ‘hub’ airport envisaged by project proponents might also be unfeasible. Rabindra Prasad Adhikari, Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, stated that the facility would be a hub airport, with 90% transit passengers flying on to international destinations or domestic airports within Nepal. Yet many aviation experts consider the hub model to be outdated, and the Nijgadh site lacks the substantial catchment area required for a major international airport. Achieving the projected level of aircraft movements and passenger throughput would depend upon accessibility of Kathmandu within one hour via the planned ‘fast track’ highway.
An editorial in the Nepali Times, published on 21st September 2018, raises serious doubts about the viability of ‘such a gargantuan airport’ adding to scepticism over the international ‘hub’ model which is being superseded by ultra-long range airliners flying ‘point-to-point’. The government is rushing to fell trees, 250,000 in the first instance and potentially over 2.4 million, for a project the full details of which have yet to be finalized. Investors have yet to show any interest. The 8,000 hectare site for Nijgadh airport and adjoining ‘aeropolis’ is an enormous area compared to Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airport with a site a fraction of that size at just 1,214 hectares. The article concludes that Nijgadh is ‘looking more and more like a logging concession than an airport project’.
Environmental and conservation activist Chanda Rana toured the Nijgadh Airport site in October 2018, interviewing villagers, community representatives and officials including forest officers. Forest was being fenced off with barbed wire in preparation for felling. She talked to villagers who were ill-informed and confused about the project, and uncertain where they would be relocated to and what they would receive as compensation.
In February 2019 environmentalists and other stakeholders, including Chanda Rana, appealed to the government to build a second international airport at an alternative site to avoid negative impacts on the environment and wildlife of Nijgadh. They said that the environment impact assessment (EIA) for the airport was inadequate and that deforestation would destroy the habitat of 22 species of vegetation and over 500 bird species, along with 23 species of mammals. Wider impacts of deforestation could include desertification which would affect people’s livelihoods. A petition was delivered, signed by forest experts, journalists, entrepreneurs, industrialists, environmental activists and other critics of the airport project. The petition was signed by over 200 prominent individuals from varied walks of life. After the petition was submitted to Prime Minister K.P.Sharma Oli, the Minister of Forest and Environment and the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation a press conference was held at Nepal Art Council Gallery. Chanda Rana highlighted flaws in the EIA saying it lacked extensive study of ecological damage that would be caused and failed to mention wildlife habitats at risk. She demanded appointment of a team of national and international environmental experts to research the impacts of the airport and advise on the EIA.