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Back from World War shelf

- Work begins to make two airstrips in Birbhum operational

Surichua (Birbhum), Jan. 3: The Indian Air Force is setting up an auxiliary air base on two abandoned airstrips in Birbhum’s Surichua that were last used during World War II.

An air force spokesperson said the new base, which will also be used as a training centre, would be monitored from the Panagarh air force base in Burdwan, 120km away.

In the past one month, the IAF conducted four trial landings of helicopters on two of the six Surichua airstrips fit for use.

The two strips have been repaired and cleared of rubbish.

The four other airstrips, sources in the district administration said, had developed cracks and would require major repairs. The IAF does not have immediate plans of using them.

Birbhum district magistrate J.P. Meena told The Telegraph: “Air force officials informed us that they wanted to make the abandoned aerodrome in Surichua functional and also use it as a training centre. They had sought our help in clearing the place and we have provided it.”

A senior officer of the Eastern Air Command in Shillong, under which Surichua falls, said the IAF had planned to develop the air base because of its “strategic location and the availability of air strips”. He said that by strategic location, he meant the base’s proximity to international borders.

The air base, which is 11km from Birbhum’s Rampurhat town and near the Bengal-Jharkhand border, has been cleared of undergrowth and unwanted trees. The work was carried out under the central 100-day job scheme and monitored by the local Kusumba gram panchayat.

The total area of the abandoned air base is around 550 acres. The land belongs to the defence ministry. But as there is no boundary wall, encroachment has taken place on a portion of the land.

“Fortunately, the encroachment is minimal as there are dense forests around the air base,” a district official said.

An IAF officer said it was “imperative” to build a boundary wall. “It has been decided that a boundary wall will be built, but we still don’t know when work will begin,” he said.

The officer said C 130J Super Hercules aircraft would operate from the Surichua air base. “The runway is long enough for such aircraft to land here. Besides, the area is sparsely populated,” he added.

Dividers are now being marked on one of the two airstrips, each around 2km long. The air force is supervising the restoration work. Offices and residential quarters will also be built.

Birbhum police said the IAF had requested them to provide security around the air base.

“We have assured the air force of adequate security,” a senior police officer said.

The officer said the air base had been “neglected” for years. “But as it is the property of the central government, the district administration had not taken steps to protect it,” he said.

“Occasionally, men from the army would come to inspect the air base. But such inspections rarely took place. This is evident from the condition of the base.”

Residents had used the airstrips as walkways for years. Trucks had also been using them, opening up cracks and often leaving behind a trail of pebbles and sand.