On May 19th, in an official budget address by President Ram Chandra Paudel, the Nijgadh International Airport received a tailwind decision from the government; its long on-hold construction will commence. The airport has sparked intense debates and discussions among various stakeholders. This ambitious infrastructure project aims to transform Nepal’s aviation sector and boost its economic growth. However, it has raised serious concerns and drawn criticism from different quarters.

After the government’s decision, Aawaaj News reached out to Kashish Das Shrestha, an active voice in advocating for the conservation of the Nijgadh forest, who shared the following comment: “Today, the country’s economic and ecological conditions are both in a fragile state. Yet, all the major party leaders are united on the single issue of NIA. Why? It’s not complicated. The timber from the forest is estimated to be worth over $500 million. The project’s price tag itself is over $3.5 Billion. So we are looking at a project worth over $4 billion. Even if the corruption is a bare minimum of merely 10%, we are talking about shared accumulated kickbacks of over $400 Million over time. But we know kickbacks are way above 10%. So of course they are going to fight as hard as they can to bulldoze this project forward despite countless serious economic & ecological concerns. This is not even counting other vested interests of large real estate and business groups in the area.”

According to Das Shrestha, Nijgadh International Airport is a project “designed by the country’s top political leaders, their affiliates, and business groups, to steal astronomical amounts of public funds and profit from it, regardless of what it costs Nepal today and in years to come. This is not a development project. This is simply organized crime, undertaken by the same political cartel that is currently under investigation for engaging in a human smuggling undertaking by selling fake Bhutanese refugee status to nearly a thousand Nepalis.”

The question of “Who benefits from this?” is crucial in unraveling the truth about anything. While on the surface, the project promises to serve as a catalyst for economic development, many voices have pointed out that there may be a hidden primary objective with its private benefit surpassing its social benefit. While proponents argue that the Nijgadh International Airport will attract foreign investment, increase tourism, and create job opportunities, the Gautam Buddha International Airport just lost its only international flight company as of this writing. Meanwhile, Nepal’s third international airport in Pokhara is yet to receive any international flights.

Officials assert that Nepal’s existing airports are insufficient to handle the increasing air traffic and fail to meet international standards. They argue that a new international airport, strategically located in Nijgadh, will enhance the country’s connectivity with global markets. This improved connectivity will not only facilitate international travel but also foster trade and cultural exchanges. Supporters of the airport project highlight the potential for regional development that comes with the construction. They argue that the airport will attract investments and industries to the surrounding areas, leading to increased employment opportunities and a better standard of living for local communities.

The opposition to the airport contains significant concerns about its potential adverse environmental impacts. They argue that the construction will require extensive deforestation, endangering biodiversity and exacerbating climate change. “None of the donors seem concerned that the government plans to clear-cut Nijgadh Forest, the last remaining tract of native hardwood jungle in Nepal’s eastern plain,” wrote Das Shrestha in a 2021 article in the Nepali Times. According to Chanda Rana, an environmental activist, only around 2000 hectares of land are needed for an international airport to be operational. Sarnath forest of Murtiya, Sarlahi, had been raised as an alternative site but looking at the government’s decisions so far, the Nijgadh forest’s fate seems to be sealed.

The proposed airport lies in the proximity of the Bara Wildlife Reserve, raising concerns about the disruption of critical habitats for wildlife. The impact of airport construction on indigenous communities residing in the affected areas will be noticeable. Skeptics question the financial viability of the project, highlighting the substantial investment required for its construction. Perhaps Nepal should prioritize other pressing socio-economic needs, such as education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation.

The success of the airport would be determined by a myriad of factors. However, environmental activists and analysts have warned of the havoc that could be wreaked for nothing in return. As we evaluate the pros and cons, it is crucial to strike a balance between economic progress and sustainable development, ensuring that the construction process addresses environmental concerns and protects the rights of local communities. Ultimately, informed dialogue and thorough assessment are necessary to make a decision that aligns with Nepal’s long-term goals and preserves its natural heritage.