Saturday, June 05, 2021

In Assam, a defunct World War II airstrip takes wings again

Guwahati: On May 8, as the ferocious second wave of the pandemic gripped the country, a 72-seater plane touched down the tarmac of an airport in lower Assam, to a water cannon salute. The 24 passengers who landed were gifted gamosas and aronais (Bodo scarves), amid muted cheers of the small crowd gathered there. ‘Welcome to Rupsi airport’ they were told.

“There was a reason to celebrate,” said Jyotirmoy Chakraborty, a journalist and resident of Dhubri town, located 15 km from the airport. “The flight to Rupsi would become a part of history.”

Located in Kokrajhar district, close to the border of Dhubri district, Rupsi was once a strategic airstrip that housed warplanes during World War II. After lying abandoned for decades, it was finally redeveloped under the Central government’s UDAN scheme for regional connectivity last month, spelling hope for not just lower Assam, which borders Bangladesh, but Bengal and Meghalaya too.

“To catch a flight we had to travel 300km to Guwahati or to Siliguri in Bengal, 250km away. This easily took six to seven hours — a duration sometimes longer than the flight itself,” said Chakraborty.

Built on almost 3,000 bighas of tea garden land by the British, Rupsi became a strategic location for the Allied forces during World War II. “It was located in the middle of a jungle and was perfect for war planes. The British built about 52 camouflaged hangars in Rupsi — these met strategic and operational requirements for the war,” said Bijay Sharma, writer and journalist from Dhubri.

Masud Zaman, a lawyer based in Dhubri, said that Rupsi was possibly the longest airstrip in Asia during the world war. “People forget how important it was — this was the nerve centre, the supply line source for forces in Burma and China,” he said.

However, several developments led to its decline post independence. ”The Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971 led to different protocols in the newly-formed country, and the frequency of visits by businessmen from Bangladesh reduced considerably. Following that was the Emergency,” said Sharma.

05/06/21 Tora Agarwala/Indian Express

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