The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Hard options stare at airport
- Compromise formula not on radar as officials cite hurdles

Calcutta, April 7: For the airport, it’s a Catch-22 situation.

Sandwiched between a mosque inside the airport and an office belonging to aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain’s party outside — both standing in the way of extending the runway — the Airports Authority of India has run to its bosses in Delhi.

A second mosque — this one outside the airport’s perimeter wall — has also come into the picture because the authorities need the land for a cargo-handling unit. There is, however, a dispute over the property with both the mosque management and the airport claiming ownership.

Yesterday, Muslim leaders of the area had said that this mosque — called Burra Masjid — be spared because it has a burial ground and is more important in their view than the one inside the airport. Latent in this position is a suggestion that there would not be opposition to removing the mosque inside if Burra Masjid is not touched.

They admitted that the mosque inside was hindering the airport’s development.

But aviation officials have told Delhi as well as Writers’ Buildings that such a swap may not be possible. They have said that the airport could not go on suffering for extraneous reasons.

Besides, the mosque inside is impeding runway extension while the one outside sits on land the airport wants for a different purpose, hinting that the two are not quite exchangeable.

Mosques alone are hardly the problem, though.

The short secondary runway which — at its present length of 2,339 metres — cannot accommodate anything bigger than Airbus-320s, has to be extended if more international airlines are to be lured to Calcutta.

The authorities first thought of extending the runway in the east on airport land. But the mosque close to the tarmac came in the way. Hussain took up the matter with the state administration and the airport was handed down a “wait-and-watch” policy.

An alternative plan was drawn up to extend the runway to the west, beyond the airport’s present boundary, for which help was necessary from the state government. That, too, failed, thanks to “local sentiments”.

Airport officials recently met the chairmen of the four municipalities surrounding the airport and district magistrate H.K. Dwivedi to discuss the feasibility of the extension. There, the CPM-controlled Rajarhat Gopalpur Municipality flatly refused to dislodge private residences and a road.

The BJP, too, has proved an ally in this. A party office is situated on the airport boundary, preventing extension.

“We have exhausted all our options,” a senior airport official said. “We have now made it clear to our bosses that the days of pursuing soft options are over,” he added, stating the wing’s “determination” to take over the mosque complex outside the airport.

“We immediately need to dislodge two of the structures (an idgah and a mazhar) to make room for the air-conditioning plant-room for the proposed cargo-handling unit,” another senior official said. “Ultimately”, the whole complex (comprising a mosque, another mazhar and a graveyard) would have to go, he added.

A meeting has been scheduled, again, between the airport authorities and the state administration where these issues are going to be taken up.

The district administration, too, is in as big a dilemma as the airport. Torn between conflicting claims over the land on which the mosque complex outside the boundary stands, district officials have sought more time to arbitrate.

“Apparently, the land in question belongs to the airport,” Dwivedi said. “But the masjid committee, too, has given us documents supporting their claim to the plot,” he said. It would take around “10 more days” for ownership to be settled.

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