President to inaugurate Baljek airport

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Shillong, Oct 17 (UNI) After being mired in political controversy for cancelling her programme to inaugurate the Baljek airport in Meghalaya, President Pratibha Patil today finally decided to go ahead with the scheduled inauguration.

''The President's Secretariat has informed that Ms Patil has agreed to inaugurate the airport respecting the sentiments of the local people,'' state Chief Secretary Ranjan Chatterjee told UNI here.

Ms Patil will arrive in Shillong on October 22 and proceed to Mawphlang to inaugurate the third phase of the Greater Shillong Water Supply Scheme.

The next day she will inaugurate Baljek airport in West Garo Hills and then attend a public reception at Tura, the district headquarters of West Garo Hills, and later return to the state capital to attend the centenary celebration of Bengali Girls Higher Secondary School.

The President's decision to inaugurate the Baljek airport in West Garo Hills District came after the state government conveyed the ''displeasure'' of the local people, after reports of her cancellation.

The Baljek Airport, named after Meghalaya's first Chief Minister Williamson A Sangma, a Rs 12.21 crore project, was sanctioned in 1995.

Presently the state has only one airport at Umroi in Ri-Bhoi district which also needs to be upgraded so that bigger aircraft can land there.

Currently, only a 20-seater aircraft can land at the airport as the runway is short. The Civil Aviation Ministry had planned to expand the runway for landing of Boeing aircraft.

Chief Minister Donkupar Roy, who was upset with Ms Patil's sudden cancellation of the programme to inaugurate the Baljek airport, instructed the Chief Secretary to immediately write to the President's office and ask ''whether the inauguration of Baljek Airport is more important than a school function.'' Moreover, the sudden change in the President's itinerary had opened up a Pandora's Box as the Nationalist Congress Party accused the Congress of manipulating Ms Patil's itinerary and having a hand in the cancellation of the inauguration.

''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.

However, Congress spokesperson R C Laloo said, ''Mr Sangma should not blame the Congress for the cancellation of airport inauguration.'' He said the inauguration was cancelled because of ''technical reasons'', adding that Mr Sangma's party man Praful Patel was the Civil Aviation Minister.

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