Question on rationale of Nijgadh International Airport

Published On: February 28, 2024 07:30 AM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

The government on Monday reiterated its priority to construct Nijgadh International Airport (NIA) while unveiling the Principles and Priorities of Budget for the next fiscal year. The construction process will be taken forward after finalizing the investment design of Nijgadh Airport. The government is under widespread criticism over the genuine need of the airport. Citing the public interest over the environmental concerns, the Supreme Court two years ago even issued an order to halt the construction of the controversial airport in Bara district. The airport's construction has landed in controversy ever since an environmental and social impact assessment carried out by the Tourism Ministry in 2017 had disclosed that a colossal number of trees - more than 2.4 million, mostly sal trees - would need to be cleared to build the airport.

The construction of the NIA was mooted when the country used to have only Tribhuvan International Airport to serve the international flights. But now, there are three international airports with two other parallel infrastructures in Bhairahawa and Pokhara. In its budget preparation document announced on Monday, the government has also talked on bringing into full operation of Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara Regional International Airport, by resolving related hurdles. While these two international airports have already invited questions about their rationality regarding their business turnover and India’s validation for the additional air routes, the government is putting forth the card of the NIA.

Critics have also raised questions over the lack of transparency in the project, including the lack of public consultation and the lack of information about the project's financing and planning. In fact, it is not yet clear whether the new airport project will be financially sustainable given the pretext of sustainability of Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara Regional International Airport. The government’s assertion has provided sufficient room for creating suspicion on the possible play for commission and corruption in NIA as it happened in case of the two newly-built international airports. The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority has seized the documents of the Pokhara Regional International Airport amid allegations of corruption during construction of the infrastructure. The anti-graft body has also started investigation on the possible financial irregularities while constructing the Gautam Buddha International Airport.

Despite not conducting in-depth studies, the government has already been pouring large amounts of funds in the name of constructing the NIA. Since the budget for the fiscal year 2014/15, the government has been allocating funds for the controversial airport project every year. This is incurring loss of huge financial resources of the state that has made the country bear significant opportunity cost for the overall economic development. The government must look for appropriate alternatives to the NIA if it really finds it necessary to have an additional international airport. It has to take into account heavy environmental costs along with the huge capital investment needed for the project construction at a time when the government system is struggling to manage minimum financial liability for state affairs and the public debt is also soaring at an alarming rate. Simara Airport, which is just 10 km away from the proposed site of the NIA, can be expanded to accomplish the task, without much logging and imposing excessive ecological damages.

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