President's cancellation of inaugurating airport mired political con

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Shillong, Oct 16 (UNI) The first proposed visit of President Pratibha Devisingh Patil to Meghalaya is caught in a political controversy after her office cancelled the inauguration of the Baljek airport in West Garo Hills on October 23.

In her two-day visit to the state, the President's Office, which had listed the inauguration of the airport in her itinerary, cancelled, citing technical reasons. However, the President would attend the public reception thrown in her behalf at Tura, the district headquarters of West Garo Hills.

The sudden cancellation had opened up a pandora box of political controversy as the Nationalist Congress Party accused the Congress of manipulating Ms Patil's itinerary and having a hand in the cancellation of the inauguration of the airport.

Ms Patil would arrive in Shillong on October 22 on a two-day visit to Meghalaya. Ms Patil's visit would be the second visit of any President after late President Dr Rajendra Prasad visited the area in 1952.

Meghalaya State Planning Board Chairman and NCP leader Purno A Sangma, who was angered by sudden change of Patil's itinerary, was now toying the idea of asking Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel to inaugurate the Baljek airport.

'' This is an emotional issue of the people of Garo Hills and the cancellation has hurt our sentiment, '' Mr Sangma said, hinting Congress party interference in scuttling the inauguration by Ms Patil.

'' You see the credit for getting the Baljek airport operational would have gone to the NCP and the Congress certainly does not want that to happen, '' Mr Sangma said.

Yesterday, Chief Secretary Ranjan Chatterjee told a high level review meeting, attended by Chief Minister Donkupar Roy, State Planning Board Chairman Purno A Sangma, Finance Minister Conrad Sangma, high ranking police and Army officers that the Baljek airport inauguration by the President had been cancelled but was going to attend a public reception in Tura and the centenary celebration of Bengali Girls Higher Secondary School in Shillong the October 23.

However, Mr Chatterjee said the decision for the cancellation of the inauguration of Baljek airport was taken due to the ''unavailability of aircraft'' and its ''economic viability''.

'' If the President can attend a centenary celebration of a secondary school, why she cannot inaugurate the airport which is meant for the convenience of the people in Garo Hills, '' Mr Sangma added.

Washing its hands off, Congress spokesperson R C Laloo said, '' Sangma should not blame the Congress for the cancellation of airport inauguration by Patil. '' He said the inauguration was cancelled because of ''technical reasons'' and Mr Sangma own party man Praful Patel is the Civil Aviation Minister.

However, Mr Conrad Sangma said that the civil aviation ministry had already allotted an airplane for the inauguration day but the cancellation has upset the expectation of the people in Garo Hills.

'' A team of civil aviation officers have already arrived at Baljek and told us that the airport is fit to function, '' Mr Conrad said.

Meanwhile, Mr Sangma left for Garo Hills on Thursday and will be meeting NCP legislators and senior Garo citizens to decide on whether the community of Garo Hills should register a protest for cancellation of the inauguration by Patil.

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