Last week, Bhattarai chaired a meeting which was told that nearly 60,000 trees had been counted and labeled for further felling. He instructed officials to complete the tree inventory by mid-November, and plan the relocation of settlements in the zone. Reports from the field say the land mafia is already moving in and encroaching on forests in anticipation of the project.
In Last week’s meeting, Bhattarai also directed the Investment Board Nepal (IBN) to communicate the plans to ZAI, and prepare to sign an agreement with the Nepal government.
However, even in May it was apparent that there had been no formal understanding between the Nepal government and ZAI, even though in Kathmandu the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism was using an agreement with ZAI as the basis for its decisions to go ahead with allocating a budget for tenders, and planning to cut trees.
This has reinforced speculation that a purported deal with ZAI is just being used by the government to channel money for a project that it knows will not happen so the budget can be siphoned off — as has commonly happened in many other infrastructure projects. Critics have argued that Nijgad is not really an airport project, but a logging concession.
ZAI’s Stelzer told us in May: “Yes, in 2019 we expressed our general interest in this project to the government. Since then the ball has been in the court of the Nepalese government. So, the project has never really started for us and we are not able to say more about it at the moment.”
Yet, Minister Bhattarai and the government have spent the last four months pretending to media and the public that things were in order with their chosen Swiss partner. Now, ZAI has confirmed that it is no longer interested in building the airport.
The arguments against building Nijgad are both economic and environmental. When the grandiose project was first mooted in 1994, passenger jets had shorter range, and the hub-and-spoke model still made sense in aviation. Flights from Europe to East Asia and Australia had to make stopovers, and Nijgad could have been Nepal’s Singapore or Dubai, boosting tourism.
However, with new Boeing 777X and 787-10s as well as Airbus 350s, planes can now fly point-to-point for 17 hours or more at a stretch, obviating the need for a refuelling stop. Also, awareness about climate change was already reducing air travel, and now the Covid-19 crisis has forced global aviation to go belly-up. Experts agree it is the wrong time to be building mega airports.
Situated in the plains just south of the Chure Range and next to Parsa National Park, Nijgad is the last remaining patch of the famous Char Kose Jhari wilderness that spanned the Tarai. The forests have an important role in the hydrological ecosystem and food security downstream. Clear-cutting would jeopardise the region’s rich biodiversity, and wildlife corridors for wild elephants and other animals.
A pro-forma government Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) that cleared the project was found to have copy-pasted entire paragraphs from a hydropower scheme in the mountains. The Nijgad EIA says the project site at 200m elevation is the habitat of two mammal species only found in the high mountains.