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Air Force base plan for Birbhum

- Work begins to make two airstrips used during World War II operational
One of the airstrips in Surichua. Picture by Snehamoy Chakraborty

Surichua (Birbhum), Jan. 3: The Indian Air Force is in the process of setting up an auxiliary air base on two abandoned airstrips in Birbhum’s Surichua 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 Burdwan’s Panagarh air force base, 120km away.

In the past one month, the IAF has conducted four trial landings of helicopters on two of the six Surichua airstrips that are 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 want 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 the base was close 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 Centre’s 100-day job scheme and was 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 start,” 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. Officers and residential quarters will also be used.

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

“We have assured the air force of adequate security would be provided for the safety and well-being of the air force staff,” a senior police officer said. “They can rest assured.”

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

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

Local 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.