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We commonly hear three stories about Nijgadh’s future. 

One tells of a glittering vision in the forest: the steady whoosh, whir and drone of airplanes, a shimmering runway, glass and steel buildings, thriving families, prosperous communities, a virtuous cycle of infrastructure, tourism, jobs, growth, tourism, jobs, infrastructure, growth. That is Nijgadh International

In the second version, in the distance you would see scrappy, balding patches of jungle. You’d remember seeing a video once, of a primal forest that stretched on forever, its riot of moss emerald avocado jade olive malachite thrumming, chirping and clicking, a different world with more life than you could fathom. That, also, is Nijgadh.

A lesser-heard story is about how, as you drove out of that airport, something might catch your eye. Clumps of shanties, a makeshift village strung along the side of the pitted highway. Ragged signs printed on the deathless plastic sheeting ubiquitous in the country. “The airport took our homes.” “We want land.” Those are the twice-displaced residents of Tangia Basti. Also Nijgadh.

Fencing around Tangia Basti. Photo by Bunu Dhungana

Which one of these versions you focus on depends on what you think of the proposed airport. 

You can believe in development and growth and national progress. After all, Nijgadh is a national pride project that could – potentially – trigger a transformative growth spurt. Skeptics are against you, against the nation, against Province 2, all of which you believe the airport benefits.  

Or you can believe that bringing down 2.4 million trees is an act of arboreal genocide, driven by immeasurable hubris and blind greed for timber, unacceptable whatever the reason. Nothing about the airport makes any sense to you.

If you are in the small, unhappy minority whose Tangia Basti in the middle of the forest will be razed by the airport, you want to believe anything that gets you out of your limbo – four decades of being called squatters, waiting for Kathmandu’s promises of land deeds to materialize.

Area that the proposed airport is going to cover. Photo: Google Earth

It is near-impossible to get a clear picture of what the stakes actually are

Since the project entered the Nepali political imagination in the 1990s, discussions have been characterized by a lack of transparency – the amateurish environmental impact report, for example, has never been made public – and driven by ad hoc-ism and flights of fancy. All these tendencies are in full bloom now.  

The controversial facts are well-rehearsed: 2.4 million trees felled on over 8,000 hectares, with all the related impacts on the environment: loss of biodiversity, desertification, flash floods, disruption of wildlife corridors; the razing of Tangia Basti to make way for the first runway, and displacement of its almost 1,500 families. We are told that this is the biggest project Nepal will ever have carried out. The 2011 detailed feasibility report carried out by the Korean LandMark Worldwide, which has also not been made public, estimated the project would cost USD 6.7 billion – in today’s terms, about a quarter of Nepal’s GDP. It envisions an aerotropolis– a city built around an airport that then generates its own economy.  

The late culture, tourism and civil aviation minister Rabindra Adhikari, whose enthusiasm moved the project forward, used to say that the airport would be a game changer, and official documentation bubbles with ideas and plans: the airport will be a regional aviation hub, connect east and west, have a dry port, an industrial zone, a green zone, recreational areas, and more

An excerpt from the environmental impact assessment.

“Nepal may have a larger scale project in the future, but this project is epoch-defining in terms of its significance for the country’s prosperity. Nepal’s prosperity is impossible without this project,” we were told by Om Sharma, project chief of Nijgadh International Airport. 

And yet, there are already suggestions that the project is being scaled down. In recent days, government officials and the new culture, tourism and civil aviation minister, Yogesh Bhattarai have sought to downplay the loss of trees and the cost of the project. But they have not said what the real figures are, if not 2.4 million and 6.7 billion. 

Kathmandu, August 19: PM Oli and Minister of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation Yogesh Bhattarai at the International Civil Aviation Organization’s conference in Kathmandu. Photo by Nabin Paudel/ RSS

In December 2018, the National Assembly’s National Concern and Coordination Committee carried out a field assessment of the airport site, and concluded that an airport city was unnecessary because nearby villages could be developed, rather than building a whole new city. The following month, former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal led a sub-committee under the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives on a mission to the site. Their report, too, questioned the need for an airport city. It also recommended moving the project site further south, to Kolhawi municipality where, rather than forest, there are sparsely populated villages. Moving the airport site is often put forward as a compromise by both proponents of the airport and skeptics, but they do not seem to agree on the site.

Proposed alternative site for the airport in Kohlwai municipality. Photo credit: Bunu Dhungana

Politicians and officials are making it up as they go along.

There has not been an official adjusted detailed project report, cost benefit analysis or environmental impact report to determine the precise impact of taking the airport city out of the equation. Any proposed new site would also require recalculations and reassessments on all fronts.  

There are no plans to do any of these studies. Rather, politicians, and the officials they direct, are being spontaneous, making it up as they go along. Environmental activists are still working off the 2011 project report and 2018 environmental impact assessment. Although the environmental report is not public, many have seen sections of it, which appear amateurish at best.

Project chief Sharma, who often travels the 20 km from his base in Simara to Tangia Basti, is busy. He has to plan the relocation of residents of the settlement and the plantation of new trees that are legally required every time an infrastructure project results in significant deforestation. Sharma, an engineer, has already drafted a conceptual layout sketch of the airport, in response to environmentalists’ resistance to the mass clearing of the area’s sal trees.  

Sharma says that, as per his plan, only 10,000 trees will be felled for first phase of the project. Tangia Basti will make way for a 3.5-kilometer runway, two taxiways and a terminal building. “Even after second and third phase expansion of the project, only 4,000 hectare lands is required for the project,” says Sharma. 

Sharma is doubtless competent and knowledgeable. But it is unusual for a single person to bear so much responsibility for re-orienting and planning such a large project. In this, too, is apparent ad hoc-ism, confusion and lack of transparency.

Photo credit: Shikhar Bhattarai

Additional airports do not automatically transform tourism, and the world is full of useless, ill-planned abandoned airports.

The cost-benefit ratio has never been clear, and the economic rationale – even for the project at its grandest, as an airport metropolis – has always been difficult to understand. 

Even if the project costs come down from $6.7 billion to $3.45 billion, this is more expensive by several factors than the proposed $300 million Pokhara airport. Potential investors, when doing their due diligence, will have to see whether the project is credible. Ministers repudiating government-commissioned estimates is not very credible, particularly when they present no alternatives and those we do hear have a back-of-the-envelope whiff about them. They will also no doubt look, perhaps warily, at the experience of the ADB and others who have funded airports and their upgrades in Nepal. 

Given objective conditions, it seems hubristic to think that Nijgadh International could overtake, say, New Delhi, as a regional hub.

 

Becoming a regional hub is the only measure by which Nijgadh could be seen as a success in relation to the financial outlay it appears to demand. Given objective conditions, it seems hubristic to think that Nijgadh International could overtake, say, New Delhi, as a regional hub. Typically, an airport that becomes a regional hub is home to a growing national carrier; NAC does not inspire confidence. Seven million people went through Tribhuvan International Airport in 2018; that figure was over 65 million for Delhi. And people flying into Nepal will have three other choices that appear more compelling than Nijgadh: Kathmandu, Lumbini/ Bhairahawa, and Pokhara. The Kathmandu-Tarai fast track, which was essential to the success of Nijgadh International, is now mired in controversy over costs, and speculation is rife that it will take three hours, not the promised 90 minutes to drive to the capital. That is hardly ideal for an international airport. 

Many eyes are on the precious hardwood trees. Here again, the math is fuzzy. The environmental impact assessment said it would cost USD 187 million to clear the land needed – although that was for the initial plan. Now, possibly in response to criticism and concerns that it is the profit from logging that politicians have their eyes on, members of Nepal Investment Board suggest that the profits from the timber could be used to fund the reforestation the project requires. If, as Sharma argues, the first phase of the project will fell 10,000 trees, they will be worth around USD 130 million dollars. [A mature sal tree is worth NPR 1.5 million, approximately USD 13,000.] 

To be meaningful, the USD 130 million figure needs to be seen against an accurate estimate of how much it will cost to log these trees. These calculations are still pending. Project chief Sharma says his plan envisions planting three trees for every one taken down. We are not told the cost of planting 30,000 trees or where it will be done. In any case, the law requires 25 trees to be planted for each felled one. Not three.

The world has many useless, badly planned abandoned airports. Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, a USD 209 million project, was meant to be the country’s second international airport. Few airlines thought its location made sense when it opened in 2013, but they gamely tried it for a few months before stopping. Sri Lankan Airlines then became sole operator, but incurred such massive losses, it had to stop in 2015.

Next door in India, a USD 17 million airport in Jaisalmer is famously grand – and empty. In the past decade, India has spent USD 50 million on airports that receive no flights. All were rationalized by the idea that investing in infrastructure drives growth. 

In Canada, Mirabel International Airport opened in 1975 as the world’s biggest airport. It closed after two decades of dismal figures; it was meant to handle over 6.5 million passengers annually, but once hit a high point of 800,000. It failed because its location made no sense; it had terrible connectivity to Toronto, which it was meant to serve; and domestic flights ran out of a different airport that was not connected to Mirabel.

The now defunct Mirabel International Airport in Montreal, Canada being demolished. Photo credit: Airports Worldwide

Many officials and politicians we spoke to insisted that, if Nijgadh were built, tourists would come. But again, it is difficult to see how an airport far from most tourist destinations and with no announced plans for connecting to these destinations will attract more tourists. The increase would have to be exponential to justify the airport. In 2018, a mere 13 percent of people using Tribhuvan International Airport were tourists.

No one has asked the people who will be displaced what they want. 

When we went to Tangia Basti last month, we saw a village in the middle of the forest, rolls of concertina wire, and construction equipment. Sharma told us that the fencing of the area has already begun. 

Close to 1,500 families, more than 7,000 people live here. Most arrived in the 1970s, ironically as part of a government tree planting project and were promised one hectare of land each. But although they have been cultivating this land, they never got official papers. The village receives hardly any government services since, technically, no one is meant to be here. Many people we spoke to talked of the deep frustration and anxiety of feeling lost in limbo for so long. Residents of nearby villages treat them like squatters. 

But no one wants to be against development. So Basti residents say they are all for the airport, provided the government fulfills their demands: relocation of households to a neighboring village, half a hectare of land, with deeds, for each family, rations for 18 months to meet contingencies, a job per family, and assistance in moving their belongings. 

For some, the airport is a chance to finally fight for their rights. “The government should either build the airport or give us basic facilities that we are entitled to as other Nepali citizens,” said Ramesh Sapkota, chairperson of the Tangia Settlement Stakeholder Committee, a committee formed in 2008 to ensure their rights over land.  

Chief Sharma has other plans, though, which involve scattering Tangia Basti residents across a number of villages in two different municipalities, breaking up a community forged through hardship. In other words, it is not clear what will happen to these families, and they have certainly not been consulted.

While moving the airport a bit to the south or east is often mentioned to mollify critics, it seems unlikely that this will happen. Umakanta Chaudhary, a parliamentarian from Bara 1, told us that “the project site was identified through a scientific study and is complemented by that the fast-track connecting Terai with Kathmandu – another national pride project. Thus, it should not be moved to any other place.” On June 28, the National Concern and Coordination Committee directed the Ministry of Forest and Environment to approve Nijgadh International’s request to proceed with the clearing of the forest, so the project is not held up. 

Even if the airport were eventually built elsewhere, the people of Tangia Basti will already have been affected, given the pace at which things are moving. Infrastructure projects nearly always displace people, often far more than 7,000, and this is usually planned for. But the treatment of this community does not bode well for how the government might treat others, in its rush to move on this matter of national pride. Like in the ghost village of Laprak, no one asked people what they wanted, what they could tolerate. 

Proposed area for the resettlement of Tangia Basti residents in Jadibuti. Photo credit: Shikhar Bhattarai

The real problem now is the enormous political investment in the project. To overcome it, we need to push for a broader strategic vision for Nepal’s future. “Growth” is not a strategy.

The problem now is not even the ad hoc-ism, the lack of consultation, serious study, adequate preparation and transparency. It is the enormous political investment in this project. Take seriously the hyperbole, the breathlessness with which politicians, bureaucrats and others insist that Nijgadh International will change the course of Nepal’s history. Take it seriously not because it is true, but because speaking like this makes it impossible for the project to be shut down. 

MP Chaudhary insisted to us, echoing many: “The project will unleash economic growth in the region as well as in the country. I have been insisting that the government must conduct a feasibility study, prepare the detailed project report, and start the project. This project should not be delayed on any pretext.”  

One vision of the future is that work on the project begins with a bang – the new civil aviation minister, Yogesh Bhattarai, has promised to lay the foundation stone before the year is out – and eventually stutters, as it runs into problems, whether through inadequate investment, incompetence or corruption. But even in this case, trees will have been felled and the lives of thousands will have been disrupted.

It is difficult to ask for accountability for the current plans, because any criticism of the airport is criticism of the government that is pushing it, is disloyalty to the nation, is anti-people, anti-development. You can see the disagreements over Nijgadh International as a reflection of the latent polarisation in our society. That is helpful as a diagnostic, but tells you nothing about what you should do.

Environmental activists aren’t quite getting it right either, and not just because they are not creating or asking for new studies based on the new plans. They, like other civil society voices, have to take seriously why there is not more public outrage about the sloppiness of this project. The answer is quite simple: peel away the cynicism about politicians and, like the residents of Tangia Basti, most of us desperately want the fruits of growth and prosperity.

Right now, what passes for strategic vision is a list of big infrastructure projects cut off from anything bigger than themselves.

 

So, rather than activism based on figures that may not reflect current reality, the job facing us all now is more complicated, difficult and two-fold. First, we must press the government hard to explain clearly their current vision, and the opposition to demand it. The House of Representatives must see an official cost-benefit analysis, detailed project report, and environmental impact assessment. The ministry must explain the changes in the plans and how these might affect the findings of these studies. Unaffiliated experts must be consulted to determine the implications for all this, if not having an airport city. This does not have to hold up the project which, as looks likely, will go ahead no matter what. But taking these steps could help avoid some of its worst unintended consequences.

 The second ask is bigger. We need to not just ask the government, but help it develop a strategic vision for the future. “Growth” is not a strategic vision. It is one potential outcome of steps taken towards a vision for the future that addresses what is good for citizens and what national goals can help strengthen the country’s relation to itself and others. 

Right now, what passes for strategic vision is a list of big infrastructure projects cut off from anything bigger than themselves. It is not clear that they will materialize, and there is neither evidence nor argument that they will fix everything. Look at Visit Nepal 2020 – the vision is “more visitors” for one year, and half-hearted advertising in London Tube stations, when instead it should be an event to build on, based on a clear idea of what kind of tourist destination Nepal wants to be. Where is a 10-year strategic tourism development plan that factors in, yes, airports? National pride projects are great, but they tell us nothing about where we want our people to be, in terms of health, education and food security, or equality and dignity.