Mumbai: The upcoming Navi Mumbai airport is at least two years away from completion, but a political war has already erupted over what the showpiece project should be named.
While the Shiv Sena wants to name the airport after party founder Bal Thackeray, the BJP is supporting a demand by local residents to name the new airport after D.B. Patil — a local politician known for standing up for farmers and landowners protesting against the government’s land acquisition drives for expansion and development, through the 1970s and 1980s.
Local people, affected by the project — whose lands were taken for the airport — are planning to stage a protest outside the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) office Thursday, to demand that the airport be named after Patil. CIDCO is the implementing authority of the project.
Meanwhile, the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has demanded that the airport to be named after Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji.
The Shiv Sena’s allies within the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) — the coalition at the helm of the state government — the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), are not fully on board with the Sena’s plan to name the high-profile airport after Bal Thackeray, but have as yet remained largely silent on the issue.
The Rs 16,000-crore Navi Mumbai airport is touted to be one of the world’s largest greenfield airports, with two parallel runways of 3,700 metres and full-length taxiways that are 1,550 metres apart. The first phase involves operationalising one of the two runways, and is likely to be completed by 2023.
The naming row
It was state Urban Development Minister Eknath Shinde, who, in January, had been the first to demand that the airport be named after Bal Thackeray. Earlier this month, Shinde announced that the airport will be named after the Shiv Sena founder, following a resolution by CIDCO, triggering a strong reaction from local residents who have been affected by the project.
Land acquisition for the Navi Mumbai airport had been a lengthy process and initially there was a lot of resistance from those affected by the project.
Prem Patil, who gave his land at Kopar village for the airport, and is one of those leading the demand for the airport to be named after D.B. Patil, told ThePrint, “The project is still far away from completion. But the Shiv Sena doesn’t know if it will still be in power when the airport is inaugurated and so, it decided to name the project after Balasaheb Thackeray right away.”
D.B. Patil, associated with the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), had been a five-time MLA from Panvel, a town in Navi Mumbai, starting from the 1950s. He had also served as an MP and an MLC and led farmers’ and landholders’ protests through the 1970s and 80s against CIDCO, to get them a fair compensation for the acquisition of their lands for various government projects.
“Earlier local leaders of all parties, including the ruling Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP, were supporting us on the demand. But, ever since the state government announced its intention to name the project after Balasaheb Thackeray, all MVA leaders have withdrawn their support to us,” Patil said.
The BJP’s Prashant Thakur, an MLA from Panvel, told ThePrint, “It is not that we have taken up this demand after the government proposed to name the airport after Balasaheb Thackeray. This has been a long-standing demand in Navi Mumbai, which gathered momentum after D.B. Patil’s death in 2012. Different gram panchayats have passed resolutions regarding this. In 2017, the Panvel civic body had also passed a resolution stating that CIDCO should be requested to name the airport after D.B. Patil.”
Thakur added: “This is not a stand we are taking because we are in the opposition in the state today. We are speaking as sons of the soil, as local representatives.”
Meanwhile, Monday, MNS leader Raj Thackeray, speaking to reporters, said, that since the new airport will serve as an extension of the city’s existing Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport at Sahar, it should be known by the same name.
Shiv Sena allies stay non-committal
Shiv Sena allies, the Congress and the NCP, have mostly chosen to stay silent on the issue, barring one casual suggestion by NCP Minister Chhagan Bhujbal.
Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Bhujbal had said, “We are not against naming it after Bal Thackeray, we are supportive of it. Similarly, we have seen the work of D.B. Patil too, and it is time for everyone to sit together and reach a consensus. But, if Balasaheb was alive even he would have said that the airport should be named after J.R.D Tata.” Tata is known as the father of Indian civil aviation.
A state Congress functionary who did not wish to be named said, “We believe that protestors should be given a hearing, but the Congress doesn’t want to take any stand on this issue because ultimately it is a government of three parties. The Chief Minister wants to name an airport after his father. That becomes a very sensitive subject for the Congress to disagree on.”
The Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA administration has already named at least three schemes and certain showpiece projects, such as the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway and the Gorewada Zoo at Nagpur, after Bal Thackeray. Some of these were considered to have been pet projects of former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
The state government has also included the Shiv Sena founder and his father, Keshav Thackeray, in the official list of eminent personalities whose birth and death anniversaries are celebrated by the government.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)