Controversies surrounding the construction of Nijgadh International Airport have resurfaced after the government’s plans and policies for 2077/78 BS presented by President Bidya Devi Bhandari on Friday mentioned commencing the construction works.
A case to scrap the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation regarding the proposed airport’s construction is currently under discussion at the Supreme Court.
However, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation has been pushing to begin the construction works.
A week before the government’s plans and policies were presented, the fifth meeting of High-Level Facilitation Committee chaired by Tourism Minister Yogeshwor Bhattarai had also instructed to begin the construction of the proposed airport.
The meeting also decided to present the proposal of cutting down 4,232 trees for road construction along the airport’s periphery to the Council of Ministers through the Ministry of Forest and Environment as soon as possible.
Likewise, the meeting also decided to begin the works as mentioned in the memorandum signed between the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) and Nepali Army for construction of link road and to fell the trees.
The meeting also recommended Nepal Investment Board to seek a proposal based on public-private partnership model from Zurich International Airport for construction of the airport and to sign the agreement with Zurich Airport International AG, a Swiss airport operator/construction company, at the earliest.
At a time when two cases related to felling of trees and EIA for the airport’s construction are under discussion at the Supreme Court, the Tourism Ministry’s decision to hasten the construction works has been described as contempt of court by environmentalists.
Environmental activists including Ranjuhajur Pandey Chettri, Bijaykumar Singh Danuwar and Krishna Prasad Bhandari among others had filed a writ petition at the Supreme Court stating that the felling of more than one lakh Saal trees that are over a hundred years old without proper planning will invite environmental destruction.
Similarly, another writ petition has been filed at the court by advocates Prakash Mani Sharma and Padam Shrestha asking to scrap the EIA report.
A joint bench of Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher JBR and Justice Kumar Regmi had decided that the cases should be handled through thorough detailed discussions at the Supreme Court.
The court had also issued an interim order stating that the subject of felling trees in Nijgadh be halted until final verdict is announced regarding both the cases.
Meanwhile, the Tourism Ministry’s proposal to cut down trees has been stuck at the Forest Ministry since the last two years.
Minister of Forest Shakti Bahadur Basnet and Forest Secretary Biswanath Oli have time and again suggested the Tourism Ministry that no files related to the felling of trees can be forwarded to the Council of Ministers until the EIA report is corrected or a supplementary EIA report is prepared.
Stating that the EIA report was a copy paste of other development projects and lacked quality, advocate Sharma, in his writ, has demanded that the report be scrapped. He has also demanded stringent action against the officers involved in hurriedly passing the EIA report.
The EIA report says that 24.5 lakh small and big trees should be felled to construct the airport. In Jestha 9, 2075 BS, the then Chief secretary of Biodiversity and Environment Division under the Ministry of Forest, Maheshwar Dhakal, had hurriedly gotten the EAI report approved by Forest Minister Shakti Basnet without holding a detailed study.
The Zurich Airport International AG has not presented its proposal to construct Nijgadh Airport because of the doubts surrounding the EIA report. The firm has sought explanation from Nepal’s Supreme Court regarding the EIA report.
The government had selected Zurich AG among six other bidders for the airport’s construction. Nepal Investment Board has estimated a cost of Rs 3,00,00,00,00,000 (three hundred billion) to construct the international airport.
The area of the proposed international airport is connected to Parsa National Park. Rare biodiversity, wild elephants, around 20 spotted tigers, rhinos, king cobras, among other animals, are found in the area.
Environmentalists say that wild elephants among other 37 types of mammals will be directly affected if the area is deforested.
Similarly, around 490 species of birds are found in the area and environmentalists have pointed out that chances of air accidents are high if the birds are to clash with the aircrafts.
Human-wildlife conflict is also estimated to significantly rise as a 100 km-long corridor connectivity will be broken between Tangiya Basti of Nijgadh and Dhanusa if the 24 lakh trees are to be cut down.
Likewise, other impacts include air pollution, noise pollution, operation of quarry sites, changes in the drainage network, soil erosion, changes in the surface hydrology and ground water hydrology, changes in the micro climate, and climate change.
In an interview with BBC World Service during his visit to the United Kingdom in June 2019, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had said, “If we cut 2.5 million trees, we can plant 5 million of them by acquiring required lands.”
The government has also failed to come up with a plan for planting trees to compensate for the ones to be cut down during the airport’s construction.