Supreme Court asks government to halt plans for Nijgadh airportThe judge has invited both the petitioners and defendants to discuss the matter.
Tika R Pradhan
The Supreme Court on Friday asked the government to put a hold on the construction of the Nijgadh International Airport.
The decision comes amid widespread criticism of the plan to construct the airport, one of the government’s pride projects, by environmentalists who say the felling of millions of trees would lead to environmental degradation, resulting in loss of habitats for different wildlife species.
Responding to a writ petition filed by nine individuals, including Ranju Hajur Pande, an environmentalist, and former secretary Dwarika Nath Dhungel, a single bench of Justice Tanka Bahadur Moktan issued the stay order Friday afternoon.
The petitioners have named Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation, the Ministry of Forest and Environment as well as Office of the Chief Minister and Ministry of Industry, Culture, Forest and Environment of Province 2 as defendants.
The Supreme Court has called both the parties for discussion on December 15 on the issue.
In their writ, the petitioners have said 90 percent of the airport’s area falls within the dense forest and the Environment Impact Assessment report has stated that as many as 2.4 million trees need to be axed for the project.
Vijay Kumar Singh Danuwar, a forester and one of the petitioners, said they were not against the airport construction. “We are only trying to save the precious forest cover and want the government to change the location a little down south.”
“If the construction site is taken a few kilometres down, the jungle will be safe,” said Danuwar. “Province 2 has the least forest cover compared to other provinces. So the provincial government has also been protesting against the possible environmental degradation.”
The proposed International Airport site is adjacent to Parsa National Park and is home to endangered wildlife and an important biodiversity corridor at the foothills of the Chure range.
Conservationists fear that the construction of the airport will destroy the natural biodiversity corridor used by the wildlife of the national park, especially those used by wild elephants.
The airport project was initially conceptualised in 1994.
It got traction after the late Rabindra Adhikari, during his tenure as the tourism minister, started a strong lobby for taking the project forward. Adhikari and proponents of the airport claimed that Nijgadh Airport could be a game-changer for Nepal as it could serve as a hub for South Asia.
After Adhikari’s death in a helicopter crash, Yogesh Bhattarai became the tourism minister in July-end. Bhattarai has been making a strong pitch for the airport, at times giving the impression that the Nijgadh airport is his sole agenda.
Bhattarai has even said on multiple occasions that the government would construct the airport at any cost in the same location—whatever the consequences. Bhattarai had even announced to lay the foundation stone of the project by the end of this month.
The government on September 23 had shortlisted contractors for the construction of the mega project. A meeting of the Investment Board of Nepal, chaired by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, had shortlisted Zurich Airport International AG of Switzerland as a single company to work under the public-private partnership model for the construction of the country’s fourth international airport.
The board had received letters of intent from eight companies from seven countries, including Nepal, for the construction of the $3.45 billion airport project in Bara. The airport, about 175km from the Capital, is expected to serve as an alternative to congestion and winter fog at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, the country’s sole aerial gateway.
In a recent interview with the Post, Rajan Pokhrel, director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, said that Investment Board Nepal is currently negotiating the investment modality for the airport.
According to Pokhrel, the prime minister has taken initiative to build the project and that the government will soon grant orders to clear trees on the site.