‘Not a single tree more than absolutely necessary will be cut down for Nijgadh airport’

Nijgadh International Airport, which could potentially become the game-changing project of Nepal, is mired in controversy. Conservationists argue the government is trying to destroy the environment in the name of development. What is the government’s plan to minimize environmental damage? Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Rabindra Adhikari shared government’s plans with Mahabir Paudyal and Kosh Raj Koirala.

Why is the government bent on cutting down the trees instead of concluding Detailed Project Report? 

You have got the whole idea wrong.  I must begin with the basics of Nijgadh International Airport because there has been a lot of misinformation about it, some of it looking like a coordinated campaign to defame the very project and even the initiatives I and my ministry have been taking to push it.

Nijgadh International Airport is the project of vital importance for Nepal. This is our national pride project. This will be a game-changing project for Nepal’s economic prosperity. This is why we have put it in priority and my ministry has been working for it accordingly. Some of the vital works have already started.  Works regarding resettlement and compensation are in progress. The project office has been set up.  Landmark Worldwide Company has already conducted a detailed feasibility study of the project. This study in itself is like a Detailed Project Report (DPR). We have made this study the basis to work further. We have looked into every study and research done on this project.
We are not talking about Nijgadh all of a sudden. The national discussion on it has been going on for over two decades now.

What is the progress in financing modality? Who will invest in it?

We have been discussing the modality of investment. The government itself won’t be able to manage funds for the project. We have rooted for Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) and public private partnership (PPP) models.  Within three months, we will bring out Expression of Interest (EoI) notice.  We have found that many developers are interested to pursue this project. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been completed and endorsed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The EIA has endorsed clearance of 8,000 hectares of land, but this is not the area that will actually be covered by airport construction.  The actual construction area will be around 2500 hectares for which Ministry of Forest will have to give approval and it will later have to be approved by the cabinet.

Meanwhile, we are also discussing how many trees may have to be cut down for the project. We have decided to start plantation in the area equal to the area in which trees will be cut down for the airport.  This plantation won’t be for the sake of plantation. A separate authority will be created to carry out this work. Nepal Army, or other entity, will be mobilized for the work.

When will actual cutting down of trees start? 

Preparations for what I said above will take around two years. Only when all other processes will be complete, tree felling will start. We are not going to start with cutting down the trees.  We are discussing tree felling issue together with other issues because if we do not start many works at the same time, this project will take frustratingly long time even to start, let alone complete. Our projects take exceedingly long time to complete because we discuss one issue at a time and spend a considerable time in resolving it.

You are accused of being indifferent to ecological aspects of the airport construction.
That allegation is flawed.  I know trees are our lives. I know there should be fine balance between environmental preservation and development. Actually, this is what I have been advocating for. Trees will be cut down for Nijgadh airport because there is no way to avoid it.   We are going to cut down only those trees which have to be cut down for airport construction.  Nijgadh airport won’t be like the one standing on the desert. It will be a green airport of international standard. Nijgadh is the most appropriate site because there are no hills around it, rivers are far away from airport site, it is close to the capital, it is going to be connected with Kathmandu-Tarai Express Way and it is going to become an international hub.  Such an airport was long overdue in Nepal. We should have completed such project 30 years ago.

I am aware of the concerns raised by the conservationists.  Their concerns and our concerns are the same. They are for building the airport by preserving the trees as much as possible. We are saying the same. Rest assured, not a single more tree than will be absolutely necessary will be cut down.  I need to clear a few confusions again. The 8,000 hectares of land we are talking about is not the total area to be covered by airport construction. And trees are not being cut down in 8000 hectares.  Like I said around 2500 hectares, or even less, will be covered by construction and rest will be developed into greenery.  As for the number of trees that will possibly be cut down, it will be around 1, 94,000 or even less.  And the process of cutting down trees won’t start unless all other preparations—making of DPR, finalization of financial modality, creation of a separate authority to start plantation of trees—are done. But we must also accept this undeniable fact. Trees will have to be cut down for building this project because there is no other way.

Chief Minister of Province 2 recently said he won’t allow Nijgadh airport at the cost of desertification of Madhes.

His concern is related to whether tree plantation will follow after cutting down of trees. I don’t think he is opposed to the project itself.  As for the desertification, greenery will be maintained and restored. Like I said, a separate authority will be created to address plantation issue. Nijgadh is going to be the biggest development project in Tarai and the direct beneficiary of this project is going to be Province 2.

I understand the seriousness with which the issue of trees has been raised. Many a times in the past, we went about cutting down the trees for the project and once the project started, plantation issue was soon forgotten.  But it will be different this time.  We will bring out comprehensive plantation plan before felling the trees.  We will create a separate authority, enact necessary laws for that and ensure that every single tree that will be felled will be used for the best of public and national benefit. Every leaf, every branch and every trunk of the trees felled will be optimally used.
Unless we rigorously work on priority projects we won’t be able to accomplish them. We have set the bad record with Melamchi. We should not set another such record with Nijgadh.

You have been dragged in controversy of wide body aircrafts purchase. What is the truth?

We know that Nepal Airlines did not have enough planes. For the last 15 years, there was a discussion that Nepal has to purchase both narrow body and wide body planes.   The talk of purchasing wide body plane restarted around two and half years ago. And a lot was discussed about whether to purchase it through the agents or directly from the company.  It was agreed that it would be purchased through the agents through competitive bidding process. The process went ahead.  Order was issued, payment was made.  The plane landed in Kathmandu when I became the minister. And I welcomed it. All this did not happen in the last six months.

If the process was flawed, let’s investigate it.  If anybody is found involved in any type of irregularities, let’s punish them.

Why do you think have you been dragged into this controversy then?

This is what surprises me too. I have no involvement in the process of purchasing wide body. The wide body came two and half months after I became the minister.  And I have been constantly saying that in case of any kind of irregularities and involvement of people in them, let’s investigate and get to the bottom of it.  And if anyone is found guilty of offense, let’s take action. Let’s not spread the rumor only for the sake of denigrating the image of an individual. Let’s not create the situation whereby Nepal Airlines won’t be able to purchase planes in the future. If we create controversy out of every single subject and do not resolve it, it will impede every good initiative.   Let me tell you, I will be responsible for everything that happened during my tenure. But why do you drag me in cases I had absolutely no involvement in?

In the initial days, you took some measures for management reforms in Tribhuvan International Airport.  What have you been doing recently?

Our TIA was mired in multiple problems.  It was not operational for more than 17 hours a day when I became the minister. The air traffic congestion was all time high. My study found that we could make the airport operational 21 hours a day.  I floated this proposal in a meeting with airport authority officials but they said it was impossible.  I launched a series of discussion with every possible stakeholder. I knew it was possible. Then one day, I said: ‘so far I have listened to your views. Let me tell you of my decision. We are going to run this airport for 21 hours.’ Today it has become possible.  People point out problems in TIA and mention me in Twitter. I take this as their faith in me. I have been trying to solve every single problem that is reported to me or that I notice.

Now airport runs for 22 hours a day. Services start from as early as five in the morning.  We still have much to do. Repair of the runway, the work which has remained pending for the last 27 years, will be started soon and it will be completed soon.  I am going to take risk. Somebody has to take a risk. We need to overhaul some infrastructures of the airport and we will do it. My happiness lies in being able to fulfill my responsibilities and initiating some changes.

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