Economy & ecology of Nijgad airport

The government’s determination to clear-fell a large swathe of eastern Nepal’s last remaining hardwood forest for the proposed Nijgad Airport has been met with outrage on the social mediasphere. 

But there has been no debate over the viability of a fourth international airport: if it is even required, or if investors will be interested in such a huge project. 

The government says it will start turning a profit from day one, and propel Nepal into the future, but there are serious doubts. 

After a Korean firm, Landmark International, designed the new airport city ten years ago, there has not been a business plan or a detailed project report. Yet, the government is in a desperate hurry to start clearing the forests. 

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The government is yet to inform the Parliament about how it will manage to secure the $6.7 billion (more than half of this year’s national budget) to build the ambitious project in a country where even constructing a city street takes decades. 

Tourism and Aviation Minister Rabindra Adhikari (pictured, right) has been the prime mover of the project, and has said only 250,000 trees will be cut in the $1 billion first phase, which will use up only 1,800 hectares of the forest. 

REACHING UP: Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari points at the Korean-made design of the proposed Nijgad Airport in his office. Adhikari has been the prime mover of the $6.7 billion airport, which critics say is economically unviable and ecologically disastrous. Pic: Bikram Rai

But Landmark’s proposal puts the total project cost beyond $8 billion if inflation is taken into account, and the 80 sq km aeropolis would be six times bigger than Heathrow and result in the felling of 2.4 million trees. It would have a capacity to handle 60 million passengers a year.

Ex-Emirates pilot PJ Shah is a self-proclaimed lobbyist for Nijgad. He told Nepali Times: “This will be our safest, most efficient and profitable international airport.” 

The two parallel east-west runways with state-of-the-art precision approach would make the airport much easier to fly in and out of. There would be no congestion, and it would be big enough to handle traffic growth well into the future. When the 72 km Kathmandu-Tarai expressway is completed, the travel time by road to the capital will be one hour. 

“All these factors make Nijgad the perfect site for a large international airport,” Shah says. “Where else would we find such an ideal place?” 

To be sure, Kathmandu airport is too congested, and is choking Nepal’s economy. There is limited room for expansion, the terrain is tricky and does not allow for large jets. Ex-pilot Dorji Tsering Sherpa says: “We need Nijgad because Kathmandu airport cannot drive our economy any longer.” 

To justify the need of Nijgad Airport, politicians point to the growing volume of international passengers served by Kathmandu. But what if the growth in international traffic actually goes down due to the drop of migrant workers? Malaysia and Qatar are already demanding fewer workers than in the past. 

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Last year, only 354,000 migrant workers flew out of Kathmandu, down from 500,000 in 2015. Already, Air Asia is pulling out its daily widebody Kuala Lumpur flights. Nepal is adding two international airports in the next two years, in Bhairawa and Pokhara, to serve up to 2.5 million passengers annually. 

These would reduce the burden on Kathmandu where an expansion plan would allow 6 million passengers a year. 

If Kathmandu airport's traffic is reduced by half, where will the Nijgad Airport find the 60 million passengers it needs to sustain itself? In June, Tourism minister Adhikari told Nepali Times that 90% international passengers landing in and flying out of Nijgad will use it only as a transit: “People from other countries of this region will use it as a transit hub to and from Europe and the US." 

Aviation experts find that preposterous. Transit airports with hub-and-spoke functions are fast becoming obsolete as international aviation moves to point-to-point connectivity with advanced long-range airliners like the Boeing 777-8, the Boeing 787-9 and the Airbus A350ULR, which are able to fly up to 20 hours non-stop. 

And there is an issue of air space. Nijgad is 22 km north of the Indian border, which means a lot of coordination for terminal maneuvering will be need coordination with Indian air traffic control for arrivals and departures. Nepal and India are both members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which theoretically obliges Delhi to accommodate Nepal's needs. 

Critics say that given how projects like Melamchi have taken decades to be completed, and how Nepal’s civil aviation authorities cannot even maintain the one runway in Kathmandu, and considering the high level of corruption and lack of transparency in government dealings, such a mega-project would be a disaster for the country. 

Instead of allowing Nepal’s economy to take off, they say it may actually tie future generations into a debt trap.

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Airjam, Om Astha Rai