Flight of fancy
Three days after the Supreme Court released the full text of its verdict ordering the government to halt all plans to build a new international airport at Nijgad Forest, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba flew down to the site in an Army helicopter. His Communist coalition partners Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal went along for the ride.
In defiance of the Supreme Court, Deuba vowed to challenge the ruling. Sitting in a semicircle of sofas with other Cabinet ministers, he declared: “The government is committed to completing the construction of both the Nijgad airport and the Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway linking it to the capital.”
Deuba interpreted the 3-2 ruling by the justices to mean that the high court had not actually rejected building the airport, just to ensure adherence to environmental safeguards.
Why such a show of force and thumbing of noses on the part of the executive against the judiciary?
Tagging along with Deuba on the Nijgad flyby were the entire cabinet and coalition partners. Not only is the unity of the coalition hanging by a thread as individual members weigh their chances in November's federal and provincial elections, but member parties are also rife with internal tension.
The real estate mafia with close ties to the leadership of all political parties has reportedly invested heavily in land surrounding the proposed $3.6 billion airport. Contractors will also benefit from political patronage and are rubbing their palms at felling an entire forest of hardwood timber.
But the more immediate reason for government partners and the entire cabinet to airlift itself to Nijgad on Saturday was to show that the coalition is strong and united.
The trip also came the day after the dissident Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala accused Deuba of no longer being the president of his own party, but president of the coalition.
Koirala’s faction includes deputy president Dhanaraj Gurung and general secretary Gagan Thapa, and threatened to launch a “constructive opposition” against its own party leadership. It also accused Deuba of tolerating lack of transparency in the Finance Ministry, and of his inability to take action to protect the economy from further shock.
Bagmati Province Chief Minister Rajendra Pandey was also in the group. Nijgad falls within Madhes Province, and its Chief Minister Lal Babu Raut also wants the airport project to go ahead to spur economic growth.
Rajendra Pandey’s inclusion in the trip taken win added significance because he has refused to step down as chief minister of Bagmati Province as agreed earlier with the coalition partners. In fact, Nepali Congress leaders in Hetauda had started a signature campaign against Pandey and a decision was to be taken at a parliamentary party meeting of the Unified Socialists on Saturday itself.
The other reason for the trip was for Deuba to send an indirect message of defiance to the Supreme Court that it had no business interfering with decisions of the government. It was a signal that the executive does not feel compelled to follow word for word any decision of the judiciary.
In fact, the Supreme Court’s decision has taken the proposal to build an international report in Nijgad to its pre-1995 date. From now on, we should no longer refer to Nijgad as a proposed international airport, but as the last remaining native tropical forest in the eastern Tarai that it is.
The Court's final text says: ‘We do not see any logical argument to prove that there is no other alternative to building an airport at Nijgad.’
An exhaustive and lengthy sentence in the verdict goes on to state: ‘In addition to the economic and technical feasibility of the airport, there needs to be an objective, neutral and competent assessment by economists, social scientists, administration experts, of the impact on the environment, forest ecosystem, wildlife of the region, and an investigation into alternative sites where actual and realistic ways to minimise the environment impact are examined so that a legally acceptable environmental risk assessment report can be made that takes into account expert advice, to conclude what capacity airport should be built, where, and in what area, and the court orders that these factors are then taken into account to decide on the location of an airport that has the smallest ecological footprint.’
Translated, these 119 pages of legalese means that the Supreme Court has decided that destroying the Nijgad Forest to build an airport is not worth the damage. The issue now is: will the government dare to go against this verdict?
Read more: Nijgad’s green runway, Kashish Das Shrestha