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Patna panic after airport closure call

Patna, Sept. 4: The threat of closing down Patna airport today sparked panic in the Bihar capital even as the state’s politicians lashed out at the Union civil aviation ministry for what they said was another attempt to arm-twist them.

In an yet-to-be televised interview, Union civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain has said that the “extremely insecure” Patna airport may have to be closed down and blamed the state government for not complying with his ministry’s directives on ensuring safety. The director-general of civil aviation also said as much in a statement to a news agency.

Hussain’s main complaint was about the state government’s reluctance to trim the huge trees of Sanjay Gandhi Botanical Gardens adjacent to the airport blocking visibility from the air. The ministry is also learnt to have sent its objections to the state government about rising buildings at the secretariat.

“We are tired of telling the state government to do their bit by way of ensuring the safety of the airport,” he was quoted as having said.

Passengers panicked after a news item was flashed about Hussain’s interview. Hundreds called up the airport to find out if it had been closed down already. “We ran out of our house, made a call at the airport on the way but there was no response,” said Chandrima Rai, a passenger. A senior airport staff said: “There was a flurry of telephone calls about the news. But we don’t know about the decision as yet.”

If the Lok Nayak Jay Prakash Narayan Airport is closed down, the state would go off the country’s air map. The airport — Bihar’s only one — had shot into notoriety in July 2000 when an Alliance Air plane crashed, killing at least 60 passengers. Work on the second airport is still underway.

The aviation ministry and the Bihar government’s showdown is over a proposal to shift the airport to Bihita, about 40 km from the state headquarters. The government wants the airport shifted because of noise pollution.

The state says it had fulfilled the Central ministry’s demand for land in Patna for the airport’s expansion but the Centre was yet to pay the Bihar government.

“Now they want the trees to be trimmed. The demand every now and then would destroy the only patch of green that is left in the city,” said Jagadanand Singh, state environment and forest minister.

Singh said the latest threat from aviation ministry was another attempt to arm-twist the state.

An angry Laloo Yadav, chief of the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal, said the state government had already complied with all the demands of the Central ministry.

“Now it is up to them to decide if they want to be in business in Patna,” he added.

Civil aviation ministry sources said the department could not take any decision on the shifting because of an airbase in Bihita. They said the ministry of defence was raising objections. But ministers here point out that the airbase was not active.

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