The states of Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh have a num ber of strategically important and operational Indian Air Force (IAF) airfields but construction activities around many of them have reached close to their boundary walls. Unmindful of the threat to such vital defence installations, a number of people have even been fighting legal battles to legitimize illegal constructions in the restricted zone.
The law prohibits construction on land up to 100 metres from the crest of the outer parapet of the Air Force Station. But encroachments are visible at Pathankot, Halwara, Chandigarh and Ambala air force stations, ammunition depot, Gurgaon and IAF station, Faridabad. Adampur airbase, which is located far from the urban area, is the only exception. In case of ammunition depots, the restricted zone is 900 metres.
Considering such construction activities a serious threat to both airfields and civilians living around these stations, defence authorities recently took up the matter with the Punjab chief minister in the civil military liaison conference. Recently, air officer commanding-in-chief, Western Air Command, Air Marshal S B Deo expressed concern about perimeter security of airfields because of construction activities around such installations.
TOI visited some of these air force stations for a reality check and found that construction activities within the restricted area of these stations have put them under serious threat.
The air force station in Am bala is the country’s oldest and world’s fourth largest airbase. This strategically important base has a fleet of fighter aircraft to secure the western theatre. The proximity of construction activities to the airbase can be gauged by the fact that when a Jaguar aircraft caught fire during take-off on September 13, 2016, a few residents of Baldev Nagar, which is close by, managed to capture images of the plane from rooftops of their houses.Thankfully, the fire was controlled immediately by Air Force fire tenders.
Senior officers of the local air force station confirmed with TOI that they noticed construction activities around the airbase in Baldev Nagar. “Such construction activities are a serious threat to the safety of civilians as well as highasset values of the Air Force in case of a mishap in the airbase, which also contains highly explosive material. It is really a matter of concern but we are waiting for the response of the civil administration to our communications”, said the IAF spokesperson.
This crucial operational base is con sidered the spinal cord of troops deployed at high altitude areas like Ladakh and Kargil. The versatile, multirole AN-32 and strategic lift IL-76 aircraft housed at the local air force station is the backbone of the nation’s security in J&K, Siachen and Ladakh sectors. It has played vital roles in several conflicts. However, IAF authorities have noticed construction by people living in adjoining villages falling under Mohali district.
Mohali deputy commissioner D S Mangat, confirmed to TOI that they have been receiving communications from IAF authorities and taking action against encroachments by demolish ing such structures in the restricted zone. “We are aware of the grav ity of the situation due to such constructions. The director, local bodies also visited last week to take stock of any such construction activity in the restricted zone”, Mangat said.
IAF station Dabua (Faridabad)
Hundreds of people have done il legal construction in the 100-me tre area around the air force sta tion, Dabua in Faridabad, which is a protected zone under the provisions of the Work of Defence Act. MC, Faridabad identified more than 250 illegal structures in the prohibited 100-metre radius of the IAF station and notices were served on the owners for demolition. But some of the affected parties moved Supreme Court and obtained stay orders.According to IAF authorities, illegal construction in the area has been continuing for the past 15 to 20 years. Despite every possible action, including correspondence with highest authorities in the state, there has been no posi tive response. A public interest litigation seeking removal of constructions from Faridabad station is still pending in Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Halwara Air Force Station
Started in 1950, the air force station in Halwara near Ludhiana was one of the first air bases built after independence and one of the operational airbases to secure the western borders. Located around 30 km away from Ludhiana, the airbase is close to two villages, Akalgarh and Halwara.
TOI team found that around 50 houses in Akalgarh are not only constructed inside the restricted zone but are hardly 50 feet away from the boundary wall of the airbase. Some these houses have been raised up to two storeys and form a good vantage point for a clear view of the technical area of the airfield.
A number of villagers said Air Force authorities wouldn’t allow construction of twostorey houses around 20 years ago saying it would pose a threat to the Air Force station.They said people have been constructing two-storey buildings freely these days and many such houses have already come up. When contacted, Sukhmandan Singh, sarpanch of Akalgarh village, said initially, air force officials used to give them oral instructions against making constructions around the air force station but they never received anything in written. “Around two decades back, there were makeshift structures for livestock around the airbase but as landholdings are shrinking, people have now raised permanent residential buildings around the station”, the sarpanch said.
The strategically important Bhisiana airbase, nearly 25 kilometres from Bathinda, is located far from any major construction sites around its perimeter, except for some construction close to Virk Kalan village.
The airfield is surrounded by two villages, Bhisiana and Virk Kalan. Habitation in both villages is farther than the permissible limit of 100 meters from the outer wall, except for a small part of the airfield wall, which is divided from Virk Kalan village only by a nearly 20 feet wide road. The few houses adjacent to the outer wall of the airbase remain in constant surveillance.A watch tower is located near the houses, which is manned 24 hours.
Bhisiana Air Force Air Force station was in the news recently when a non-commissioned officer, Aircraftman Ranjith K K was arrested from here on December 28, 2015 on charges of spying for Pakistan’s ISI. After that, vigilance in and around the Air Force station was increased manifold, said an official.
“We are aware that no construction activity is allowed near the airfield. All the houses are single-storey . We have no problems with it as it is a matter of security”, said Resham Singh, an elderly resident of Bhisiana village.
Regarding construction of houses adjoining the boundary wall in Vir Kalan, he said these houses existed before the construction of the boundary wall of the airbase and authorities never objected to them.
Amritsar Air Force Station
The Amritsar Air Force station is used for both civilian and defence operations. Even though the Air Force uses it for logistics and not as a regular operational airfield, it is still a strategically important airbase for the IAF. It is also used for domestic and international flight operations by commercial airlines. Saying that high-rise buildings are a potent threat to aircraft if they fell on the flight path, director, Amritsar’s Sri Guru Ram Das International Airport Venktashwar Rao said, “Airport authority of India issues No Objection Certificate (NOC), which could be obtained online.”
Sources, seeking anonymity, said Central Industrial Security Force raised objections to certain buildings near the airport for security reasons. However, Rao said no one could construct a highrise building near the airport without obtaining an NOC.
With inputs from Ajay Sura, Yudhvir Rana, Neel Kamal, Shariq Majeed
Works of Defence Act, 1903
According to air force veterans, airfields were set up by the British far away from the civilian population to secure operational installations from possible intrusion or trespass. To ensure that a distance is maintained, a special law called Works of Defence Act, 1903 was enacted to impose restrictions upon use and enjoyment of land in the vicinity of defence establishments, including air force stations, ammunition depots and radar installations. In most cases, there could be no construction up to 100 metres or 900 metres around defence installations
Pathankot Air Force Station
Pathankot Air Force Station, which faced a terrorist attack this January, is one of the strategically most important forward airbases for both war and peacetime surveillance. In view of its proximity with Pakistan, the station is not merely a defensive airfield but also a vital airbase for tactically offensive operations.
It provides logistic support to the entire Jammu and Kashmir theatre, including Ladakh. The Air Force base in Pathankot and the airfield in Amritsar provide essential operational range for deep air raids into Pakistani territory.
However, markets and residential buildings have reached close to the wall of the Pathankot airbase.
Gurgaon ammunition depot
The administration’s demolition drive in the area met stiff resistance from people who have houses or shops in the colonies set up in the restricted zone. Following the intervention of Punjab and Haryana High Court, a Central government committee suggested reducing the restricted zone from 900 to 300 metres.However, the proposal has not been accepted by the court and the matter is pending.