Surkhet airport expansion faces land acquisition hurdlePlans are to lengthen the runway to 1,555 metres to accommodate bigger planes.
The plan to expand Surkhet airport, the gateway to Karnali in western Nepal, has hit a hurdle with local residents and civil society leaders opposing the land acquisition plan terming it haphazard.
They say that the scheme may displace hundreds of residents, schools and other infrastructure in Surkhet valley.
The local people argue that the expansion project is not based on a technical study, and that they are also tired of giving up land repeatedly for the airport.
In 2004, Mani Ram Chalise of Birendranagar-12 sold part of his land to the airport and received Rs30,000 as compensation for the 11 dhur plot (about 186 square metres). He thought that would be the last expansion project, and they wouldn't bother him anymore.
But now, 16 years later, he is a worried man again as the government has initiated another expansion plan—the fifth in as many decades. Chalise is not happy with the expansion plan this time.
“I would have moved elsewhere if the government had told us in 2004. It’s a haphazard expansion plan that comes to life every decade. This time, I will lose not only my land but my house also,” he said.
Like Chalise, many families living in the vicinity of the airport are worried as the project will destroy their homes; and buying land and building a new house some place else requires a lot of money.
Surkhet airport is strategically important for the transportation of food grains, clothes, medicines, construction materials, school materials and other commercial goods to the roadless mountainous region in the north.
The runway of Surkhet airport, constructed in October 1966, was 1,000 metres long. Six years later, it was lengthened by 250 meters. In 2001, the airport area was expanded slightly for safety reasons, by approximately 60 metres, which required around 3 bighas of land.
The airport can accommodate 42-seater ATR aircraft. In 2019, a total of 2,990 flights took off and landed at Surkhet airport, carrying 19,941 passengers. The airport handled 812 tonnes of cargo last year.
In November, the Cabinet approved Karnali Province's proposal to expand the runway of Surkhet airport to 1,555 metres by acquiring 30 bighas of land.
“As there are no long-term airport development plans, the local people always become sufferers,” said Tika Ram Acharya, coordinator of an ad-hoc committee formed by residents and civil society leaders to stop the planned development.
“No proper technical study is being done to expand the airport now or in the future. So we have decided not to allow the project to move ahead by relocating locals.”
According to an official at the provincial Ministry of Economic Affairs and Planning, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal had conducted a study for a bigger airport near the Bheri river, but it was not feasible due to geographical reasons.
“The decision to expand Surkhet airport moved forward under which the provincial government will be responsible for acquiring land and dealing with any problem that may arise in the process, and facilitating and coordinating in the work,” the official added.
The expansion project is estimated to cost nearly Rs8 billion. As per the agreement, the federal and Karnali provincial governments will share the costs on a 50/50 basis.
The official said the project would require only another 15 bighas of land and there was no need to acquire 30 bighas as is being planned. “The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal plans to acquire extra land which is not required. The airport cannot be expanded again in the future because of geographical difficulties.”
According to Acharya, the airport expansion plan is against the master plan of Surkhet valley. In 2004, when the airport was expanded, many schools like Hastabir Primary School were relocated.
“It was difficult to relocate and construct a new building with the help of donor support,” said Purna Prasad Poudel, former chairman of the school management committee. “If the school has to be moved again, it will cost a lot of money,” he said, adding that around Rs250 million would be needed to buy land and construct the school building.
Amar Jyoti Secondary School is also facing problems. The school is spread over 1.2 bighas and has 10 buildings and 50 rooms. “It’s not easy to build such a facility,” said Khagendra Thapa, the headmaster.
The school was constructed six decades ago. The ad-hoc committee led by Acharya has submitted a memorandum to the Civil Aviation Authority, Karnali Province and the District Administration Office informing them that the airport expansion project should be carried out with a proper technical study.
The project will affect Amar Jyoti Secondary School and Amar Deep Community School which has 4,000 students and Hastabir Primary School which has 700 students.
In addition, there are three private schools and a number of cooperatives.
“As visibility is poor at the southern side of the airport, the Civil Aviation Authority is acquiring land to install an airport lighting system which will be 460 metres long,” said Umesh Kumar Panthi, chief of Surkhet airport.