Government backs plan to build Nijgadh airportThe $3.45 billion airport project in Bara, planned to be funded with Nepal’s own resources, has been stuck in the planning stage for decades.
The Tourism Ministry has backed the Civil Aviation Authority's decision to build Nijgadh International Airport on its own even as the $3.45 billion project in Bara is enveloped in a 'cloud of uncertainty'.
Rajan Pokhrel, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, told the Post that they had urged the government to build the airport, which has been stuck in the planning stage for decades, by itself as it would not be easy to convince foreign investors in the midst of a financial crisis caused by Covid-19.
“If we wait for the project to be developed through foreign funding, it will never happen. But if we start on our own, the project, which will likely take seven years to complete, will at least get moving,” Pokhrel said. “We have already spent around Rs2 billion on the initial works. Now, we cannot backtrack.”
Pokhrel added that the Tourism Ministry had given the green signal to the Civil Aviation Authority's proposal, and sent it to the National Planning Commission and the Finance Ministry for their 'in principle' approval.
The planning commission and the Finance Ministry are studying the project separately before making their decision, said Pokhrel.
“If we spend Rs20 billion annually, the airport will be completed in the next five to six years,” said Pokhrel. “But that doesn’t mean that the government should allocate funds for the construction this year or the next year as the pandemic is not over yet. The preliminary works can be completed in two years if the decision to build the airport on our own is made now.”
Raj Kumar Chettri, spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, said the project would likely be delayed as it is engulfed in various controversies and there are some pending writs at the Supreme Court.
“But we can start the preparatory work if the government makes a clear decision over the project's investment future.”
In September 2019, after the government invited potential bidders to build the airport, Switzerland-based Zurich Airport International was the only short listed candidate that met the official requirements for its construction and operation.
But before Zurich Airport International accepted the project by sending its investment plan or request for proposal, Covid-19 pushed the world into a recession.
The company then withdrew, but Investment Board Nepal, the government’s investment agency for large projects, said 'no official' communication had been received from the Swiss company.
The Swiss company outbid its competitors, including Indian infrastructure giant GMR Group, and was given a September 30, 2020 deadline to submit its investment plan.
One day before the last date, Zurich Airport International sent an email to the Investment Board saying that it would not be able to submit a request for proposal by September 30 due to Covid-19 related difficulties.
Dharmendra Kumar Mishra, spokesperson for the Investment Board, told the Post that it was unable to submit the request for proposal within the deadline due to the ‘disaster’ in the civil aviation sector caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“This doesn’t mean that the company has decided to quit,” he said. “A board meeting of the Investment Board will decide how to proceed after Zurich Airport International’s communication,” Mishra said. Since the Investment Board has not short listed other bidders, no other candidate can be chosen if Zurich pulls out.
Pokhrel said the situation was not favourable for the construction of the airport for many reasons, and the Covid-19 further complicated things. “But we cannot remain silent as we need an alternative to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport.”
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal has selected a consultant to prepare an 'updated' master plan for the airport project, indicating that potential builder Zurich Airport International will not come up with a business plan as promised, officials privy to the matter said.
The proposed airport in Bara, slated to become the largest airport in terms of area in South Asia, has been embroiled in a storm over its environmental impact.
According to an environmental and social impact assessment carried out by the Tourism and Civil Aviation Ministry in February 2017, more than 2.4 million small and large trees need to be felled to build the airport.
In the first phase alone, in which one of the two runways and the terminal would be built, 769,691 trees spread over 2,500 hectares would have to be cleared. The plan has drawn criticism from various quarters.
Environmentalists say that axing so many trees would drastically affect the biodiversity of the area. The results could be catastrophic for many animals that call the Nijgadh forests home, they say.
But the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal said it had revised the earlier plan to reduce the environmental impact.
The authority, which is the project executing agency, said the project would be spread over only 1,900 hectares in the first phase. The scheme would cost Rs120 billion in the first phase, according to its estimates.
The planned air hub at Nijgadh, about 175 km southeast of Kathmandu, is expected to serve as an alternative to congestion and winter fog at Tribhuvan International Airport, the country’s sole aerial gateway.
The government had decided to develop Nijgadh International Airport, one of its most ambitious projects ever, in 1995. The timeline for the airport has been pushed back on multiple occasions amid concerns about financing and legal issues over its environmental impact.