Mitigate ongoing conflicts surrounding Nijgadh controversial airport site

Keshav Bhattarai


Writer Bhattarai

Airports play catalytic roles in the economic development of a country. Landlocked mountainous Nepal tremendously benefits from air connectivity at local, regional and global levels.

Although some political parties opposed the reform and privatization of airlines in the 1990s, after the privatization, Nepali airlines industry have strongly emerged to take comparative advantages. Many airlines have started operating in Nepal since then.  New regional airports are constructed; for examples—Gautam Buddha and Pokhara Airports. The Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) that has been in operation since 1955 is becoming too congested and problematic, and the Government of Nepal (GoN) is mulling to construct a domestic airport in Nagidanda, Kavre and Nijgadh International Airport (NIA), Bara, to mitigate air traffic and  facilitate tourism and other air businesses.

The GoN also aims to make NIA as one of the Asia’s hubs, like the Changi Airport, Singapore. However, the proposed NIA has invited several controversies. The GoN is making all attempts to fell 2.2 to 2.4 million trees mostly of matured Shorea robusta, the important tropical carbon sinks in the remaining Charkoshe Jhadi. Various groups of nature conservationists are jostling with the government using their own resources. The GoN argues that the site of Nijgadh has no alternative as it easily connects to capital city Kathmandu by a fast-track. Airport modalities through various simulations are presented with approximate cost structures and some basic environmental issues are debated. Environmentalists have been decrying to protect the natural biodiversity. The most derogatory political bickering has reached the climax in blaming each other.

It would have been much easier for the conservationists if the professional forestry  organization was clear in its stand, either YEA or NAY. Ministry of Culture Tourism and Civil Aviation (MCTCA) has been presenting illogical arguments such as planting 25 samplings for each tree felled. Also, arguments are there that cutting down 8,000 ha forest where 44 of the total land surface is under forest cover does not desert Nepal. Many of the abandoned land with shrubby growth are accounted for 44 percent forest areas.  Some are even labelling environmentalists as Indian agents and anti-developmentalists.

Analyses of recent satellite imagery reveal that the claim of planting of 25 saplings for each tree felled is an utter folly.  Saplings are planted on vacant lands. Nepal has less than 0.5 million hectares of shrub and bare lands. Of the 0.5 million ha, the availability of land is 56,655 ha (below 999.99 m), 83,204 ha (1001-1999 m), 77,160 ha (2000 – 2999 m), 25,944 ha (3000-3999 m), 18,241 ha (4000 – 4500 m), and rest of the areas are above the snowline. Bara district has only 294 ha of plantable areas that too scattered between 1,000-1,400 m elevations in many places, especially, close to settlements. Rest of the plantable areas are fragmented to 77 districts near the settlement areas at various elevations.

Planting 25 saplings for each felled tree to create ecological niche for wildlife is unthinkable because as of today no science has justified to temporarily relocate wild animals to acclimatize in man-made patches as per the carrying capacity and relocate them to original places unless MCTCA does not care of severe human-wildlife conflicts. It is as foolish as the Russian leader Joseph Stalin relocating millions of Ukrainian farmers to permafrost land of Siberia.

Environment problems are in alarming numbers in Nepal. Deforestation would escalate such problems further due to gaseous emissions. Politicians are wrestling to gain popularity by conveying to the international communities about the possible climatic related disasters; for examples, video records show that on Sept 26, 2018, Rt. Honorable PM K. P. Oli while talking to the Asian Society in New York expressed his serious concerns of the Himalayan degradation (49.00 -52.53 min). Likewise, on December 4, 2018,  President Mrs. Bidya Devi Bhandari expressed similar concerns in Poland. Civilians appealed to President Bhandari to protect the pristine forest of Bara district, but no actions have been noticed as of today. Conservationists have discussed associated cost with the forest clearance and have held various public discussions. Despite all these international hypes, appeals, and logical debates, the GoN is hell bent to clear felled Nijgarh natural forests. The environmentalists have given several alternatives including the land pooling using the money set aside for planting 25 saplings for one tree felled.

Nepali land use records suggest that land pooling might not be a feasible solution to create Second International Airport (SIA) because with the growth of population, the per capita land holding in Nepal is decreasing from 1 ha per family of 6 members in 1990 to 0.5 ha in 2015. Countrywide, 51 percent of the total population owns less than 0.5 hectare per household, and about 16 percent of the households own between 0.5 and 1.0 hectare per family. Overall, Nepal is densely populated as compared to 0.12 ha person-1 in South Asia and 0.19 ha person-1 in the world. Almost 33 percent of the total population is in near landless situations. Currently, there have been attempts in Nepal to provide 5 to 10 Kattha (one Kattha = 66.9 m2) of marginal lands to each landless squatter’s family in villages and 5 to 10 Dhur (one Dhur = 16.929 m2) to each landless family in the urban areas. These tiny parcels, if available, will be just enough to build a shelter and operate kitchen gardens. In such a situation, it is not doable to utilize agricultural land pooling from a long-term prospective.

There is no doubt that Nepal needs a Second International Airport (SIA). After April 25, 2015’s earthquakes, and the blocking of the runway at TIA by the Turkish Airlines’ aircraft, the importance of SIA has been much realized. Accordingly, in May, 2015, the Investment Board Nepal (IBN) decided to study the possibility of SIA and it identified NIA as the best site.  On Nov-2016, MCTCA was assigned to prepare a detailed project report (DPR) for NIA with either 4,000 m or 3,600 m runway with 100,000 or 75,000 square meters terminal, but it has not happened yet. On 05 May 2016, GoN decided to initiate the land acquisition process for Nijgadh International Airport (NIA) at the cost of USD 1.2 billion. A feasibility study prepared in Apr-2011 stated that the airport would cover 3,000 hectares of land, where 2,000 hectares would be used for the airport and the remaining 1,000 hectares would go towards an airport city development. The estimated cost was approximately USD 341 million.

Amid these preparations, it was found that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared for NIA was very faulty. It was copied and pasted from somewhere without having relevance to the NIA. This Nijgadh forest is one of the biodiversity richest sites. The EIA has completely ignored it. Evaluating the ecosystem services of the Nijgadh forest, environmentalists have proposed alternatives, given logical arguments from environmental aspects, made repeated appeals, submitted details reports, and presented audio visual opinions.

From the government side too, strong ideas (MoF; MTCCA) are presented in favor of construction of the airport.   The proposed NIA site falls in the tropical belt of Nepal where the GoN also implements REDD+ program. The future carbon finance to Nepal would depend upon the verified emission reductions resulting from curbed deforestation and enhanced forest carbon stock through better forest management of this area. Thus, from environmental aspects, it is not fair to cut trees from Nijgadh forests in the name of airport construction while there are several alternatives available. Carbon emission has been alarmingly contributing to the rise of temperature despite several mitigation practices, and cutting down Bara’s pristine forest would contribute to the increase in carbon. Nepal’s contribution to global carbon emission might exceed the current 0.027 percent.


Making NIA as Asia’s hub is not possible. I had many opportunities to discuss with professional pilots (Professors at the School of Aviation at University of Central Missouri) who have flown to South Asian countries including Nepal for many years. According to them, Nepal has two major issues in aviation—the beautiful but scary terrains and aviation routes controlled from India. Thus, flying to Nepal requires additional motivation.  They expressed that it is very hard for Nepal to be a hub in the changing technological era because recent fuel-efficient aircraft can fly for 17-19 nonstop hours that minimizes the transit hassles.

Unless Nepal has enough fuel-efficient planes and very special commercial products to deal with, it is hard to aspire to become like Singapore’s Changi Airport.  In the recent years, Singapore airlines have faced serious challenges from Qantas flight of Australia that flies non-stop from Sydney to Los Angeles, U. S. for 20-21 hours. This long fuel-efficient air operation compelled Singapore to purchase new airplanes that can fly for 17 hours at par with Australian Qantas. Nepal with so many financial issues even on the purchase of two wide-bodied aircraft, aspiring to becoming a hub is not a feasible goal.

Since Nepal cannot be a hub, is it not worthwhile to cut 2.5 million trees for the construction of airport and minimize the chances of ecotourism. Today, over 80 percent of Nepal’s tourists come for ecotourism. Destroying biological hotspots would not only negatively impact tourism economy, but also various ecosystem services. The best alternatives would be to select Murtiya for SIA as it is a much better site than Nijgadh. However, if Murtiya is considered unsuitable due to its 35 km distance from Nijgadh-Kathmandu fast track, another alternative could be Simara. Selecting Simara also would silence the cries of politicians including the low profile accusation and concerns. Since Simara is close to the capital, it could be the best alternative site for SIA. Constructing SIA at Simara would not fragment the continuous belt of forest. There were some arguments that Simara does not have enough area. Let us see some of the airports around the world how much areas they occupy, and how long their runways are, and how many passengers they serve.

Table 1: Airports, their areas, runways length and width, and number of passengers served

Airport Area (ha) Number of runway, length  (L) and width (W)  in miles Passengers per year in million
King Fahd International Airport (IA) 77,600 2.48 L  x 0.27 W 10
Denver IA, USA 13,571 3.33 L x 1.40 W 61
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), USA 6,963 2.52 L x 0.67 W 67
Washington Dulles IA  (IAD), USA 4,856 2.21 L x 0.24 W 70
George Bush IA, US 4,451 2.55 L x 0.5 W 41
Shanghai Pudong IA, China 3,988 2.48 L x 0.65 W 70
Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok 3,240 3.24 L x 0.25 W 60
Indira Gandhi IA 2,066 2.85 L x 0.51 W 63
Rajiv Gandhi IA 6250 2.8 L x 0.18 W 18.5

These evidences suggest that an international airport generally has 2.21-3.33 miles long runway lanes with maximum width ranging from 0.25 to 0.67 miles, generally with 2 or 3 lanes (taxiways). In Simara, an airport of the above nature can be constructed within 10.8 sq. miles (2,800 ha) of land of which 5.63 sq. miles (1,468 ha) will be forest. The current airport covers around 100 ha of land. Satellite imagery shows about 50-70 percent crown cover of the forest that needs to be clear felled, might lose 700,000 trees at the most. It will be more manageable and will not lead to forest fragmentation. This will minimize wildlife human conflicts.

Since many of the market infrastructures are very close to Simara, clearance of extra forest areas for towns is not needed. If Murtiya is not a favorite choice due to Nijgadh-Kathmandu fast track, Simara could be the best option as landing and takeoff would be similar as in the proposed Nijgadh area under Nepal-India aviation sky use agreements.

The writer is a professor of geography at the University of Central Missouri, US.