Believe it or not, an airport at Baljek, about 32 kms from here, has been lying idle for over six years now even after then President Pratibha Patil had inaugurated it way back in 2008 amid much fanfare. While the terminal building and other infrastructure have remained unused, the residential quarters meant for Airports Authority of India (AAI) staff currently houses a CRPF company.
Owned and built by the government of Meghalaya during the heydays of former Lok Sabha Speaker and Tura MP Purno Agitok Sangma, the airport had then cost Rs 12.52 crore, after the original proposal sent to the Centre in 1983 was finally sanctioned in 1995. Thanks to the E/67 Battalion of the CRPF the residential portion of the airport complex is spic and span. But the rest of the area is surrounded by tall grasses, weeds and other wild vegetation, with snakes and reptiles often sighted by the jawans here.
“There are so many snakes and other reptiles around and my jawans do not venture out towards the terminal building after sunset,” said an officer the CRPF company located in the airport’s residential complex. Neighbouring villagers once in a while scale the broken boundary walls to collect firewood from inside the compound.
While the AAI and ministry of civil aviation have inspected the airport and a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) prepared by the AAI has been pending clearance by the government of Meghalaya for the past five or six months. Once the state government accepts the terms and conditions, with modifications if any, only then will the actual process begin for making the airport operational.
“We have submitted a draft MoU to the state government a few months back and are waiting for a reply. Once it is said to be OK, then we will sign the MoU as early as possible,” a senior official of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) told The Indian Express.
The MoU contains issues like transfer of land and other infrastructure, number of years of lease, security etc, which would have to be agreed upon by the state government.
When Tura Lok Sabha member Purno A Sangma raised the issue in Parliament in July, union MoS for civil aviation GM Siddeswara told him that there was little chance of the airport being put to use because no scheduled airlines own Dornier aircafts. “Tura airport is suitable for operation of 20-seater aircrafts and no scheduled airlines own Dornier-228 aicrafts,” the minister had said.
Meanwhile, the Meghalaya government is now examining the scope of roping in a private party to operate the Tura airport. “The state government has taken a decision to involve a private operator to run the Tura airport on a PPP model. The process for selecting a private party however has not begun,” J Pakyntein, said joint secretary in the state transport department said in Shillong.
Earlier, during the Lok Sabha election campaign in March-April, Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma however had said that making the Baljek airport operational was on the priority list of the Congress party and his government. Purno Sangma, once again a Lok Sabha member, too had promised to make Baljek operational during the campaign.
“Now that no scheduled airlines possess Dornier-288 aircrafts, only way to put Baljek to use is to go for larger aircrafts like AirBus and Boeing 737, for which the runway length will have to be increased,” the AAI official said. The state government had last year acquired an additional 58 acres of land for expansion of the airport, though security aspects including construction of a boundary wall are yet to be looked into.
Way back on October 23, 2008, when then President Pratibha Patil had come here to “inaugurate” the airport, she had used a 19-seater Dornier aircraft to land here. The present runway is about 3,700 feet in length, and it would have to be more than doubled to make it fit for bigger aircrafts, the AAI official said.
Meghalaya currently has only one airport — at Umroi, about 25 kms from Shillong, while people here have to travel all the way to Guwahati, about 220 kms away to catch a flight to New Delhi, Kolkata or any other destination of the country. The original proposal in 1983 had also pointed at quick transportation of perishable horticultural and floricultural products from the Garo Hills region, which in turn would have been a major incentive for the region’s farmers. Tourism too would have received a much-needed boost.
“Traveling to any other part of the country is very difficult from here. By the time you reach Guwahati by road you are already tired. Moreover, with bandhs being called by numerous organisations in Assam, it becomes very risky too,” said Alva Sangma, a national award-winning local entrepreneur here.