Land hitch hits air force base - Plan for IL-76 station at Nagpur dropped after 10-year wait

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By JAIDEEP HARDIKAR
  • Published 25.07.11
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Nagpur, July 24: The air force has pulled its IL-76 transport aircraft base out of Nagpur, frustrated at the Maharashtra government’s failure to fix land problems in 10 years.

Normally, the land hitches should not have bothered the Indian Air Force (IAF). For it already had the land — its existing 400-hectare station here — to make the IL-76 base fully operational.

But a state government plan to build an ambitious cargo hub at the airport — the multi-modal international hub airport at Nagpur (Mihan) project — meant the IAF would have to move its base to a new site.

Then the government’s project ran into land acquisition problems and has stayed a non-starter, and the air force’s IL-76 base has become part of the collateral damage.

It was over three weeks ago that air headquarters in New Delhi decided to wind up its Nagpur base for the air force’s largest transport aircraft, also called Gajraj for its size.

The defence public relations officer here, Wing Commander Sandeep Mehta, has confirmed the pullout, saying: “It is for operational reasons that air headquarters decided to merge Squadron 44 of the IL-76 transport aircraft with its other half, located in the northern sector (Chandigarh).”

The IL-76s are crucial in wartime, because they can transport not only troops but also hardware like T90 tanks. In peacetime, they help the military maintain its posts in Kashmir and in the Northeast by flying weekly “courier” services. Unlike the smaller AN-32 that make up most of the air force’s transport fleet, IL-76s are jet aircraft.

The IAF had shifted its IL-76 base 10 years ago to its station at the Sonegaon airport here because Nagpur’s central geographical location allowed the aircraft to reach any destination in quick time.

Around the same time, the Maharashtra government mooted the Mihan project. The problem, many experts say, was that the state government had neither the expertise nor the constitutional jurisdiction over what was essentially a civil aviation subject.

Still, the state government floated a Maharashtra Airport Development Company (MADC) as a nodal agency to steer the Mihan project. The MADC later acquired 3,000 hectares adjoining Nagpur airport for a multi-product special economic zone.

It asked the IAF to swap its 400 hectares along the airport for an area of equal size the government promised 6km away, outside the Mihan area. The IAF agreed to a land swap under political pressure but set a few conditions.

One, the MADC would have to build a new airstrip and hand over land to the IAF along this second runway, to be used by both air force and civil aircraft. The air force said it would transfer its base only after this.

So far, the government hasn’t been able to acquire land for the runway because of resistance from local people, and the land-swap agreement between the MADC and the IAF has not happened yet. Even the SEZ hasn’t attracted a single big manufacturing investment.

What Nagpur loses is not just the IL-76 base and the infrastructure that might have come up with it, but also any future plans the air force may have had for the station.

“I am not aware of the IAF’s decision (to pull out the IL-76 base),” U.P.S. Madan, the MADC vice-chairman and managing director, told The Telegraph.

“I don’t know if they’ve taken the decision for some other reasons, because there are no land issues.”

Madan said the land to be given to the IAF in exchange for its 400 hectares is already with the MADC. “What we do not have is the land for the new runway, but that should not be an issue.”

He added: “In fact, we are waiting for the defence ministry to approve an MoU (for land swap) between us and the IAF, which we had agreed to sign about a couple of years ago.”

Although IAF officials refused to say on record that it was the land stalemate caused by the Mihan project that had forced the pullout, sources privy to the development said it indeed was the reason.

“Strategically, it is a kind of setback,” a top IAF official said on the condition of anonymity. Nagpur was chosen for its strategic location. “It is unfortunate that the Maharashtra government failed to understand the security ramifications.”

He added: “We have waited and waited and we could have waited more, but we do not see the MADC or the state government building a second runway anytime soon or giving us the land in the foreseeable future.

“We have the budget to build the infrastructure —right from a permanent colony for more than 2,000 personnel to constructing the hangars to station the aircraft. Now it will have to come up in some other sector.”

Before being moved to Nagpur, the IL-76s were based in Chandigarh, where they would now be returning. Even during the time the squadron was “based” in Nagpur, a detachment was maintained in Chandigarh, given that most of the squadron’s operational commitments were in the northern and northeastern sectors.