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LAHORE: High-rise buildings may replace the Walton airport where Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and other dignitaries would land… still the prime minister, the Punjab chief minister and other VVIPs prefer to land at the first airstrip in northern part of then united India.

The Walton airport had also served as a shelter for the refugees who arrived in Pakistan after Partition. Later, a number of Afghan families took refuge here for a couple of months after Soviet forces invaded their country.

“A full-fledged airport in the World War II, Walton remained in use of Pakistan Air Force during 1965 and 1970 wars. The remnants of heavy strafing by Indian planes are still there as 1970 war memorials,” recalls a retired squadron leader while adding the aerodrome is still in use of flying clubs which produce 60 per cent of the total civil pilots trained every year in Pakistan.

Spreading over 1,800 kanals, the airstrip also serves as one of the few ‘lungs’ of Lahore because of the green areas around its runway. “The plan will only add to the environmental issues of Lahore which is being subjected to an overdose of development projects,” says conservationist Dr Aajaz Anwar.

“An air ambulance service can be launched from here… to transport serious patients to and from far-off areas to the premier health institutions of Punjab which are in proximity to the old (Walton) airport,” suggests a senior doctor while lamenting the government decision to make the historic airstrip a thing of the past by converting it into a Central Business District (CBD).

Walton Airport General Manager (Operations) Usman Malik terms the government move to convert the airstrip into a commercial zone ‘an illegal act.’

“A private sector entity had gifted the land for the airport to Northern India Flying Club for aviation-related activities. Neither the federal nor the provincial government can change the purpose of the acquisition,” said Mr Usman who looks after the operations of sports flying club at Walton.

Some 20 companies, with the permission of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), invested a huge sum to develop infrastructure and install equipment to run the aerodrome and flying clubs at the site.

The CAA had on April 24, 2008, sought renewal of the lease of the 165.72 acres land for 99 years and also for retrieval of 6-kanal and 10-marlas of its acquired land, erroneously transferred by the Board of Revenue (BoR) to Pakistan Navy, on the same terms and conditions finalized between the BoR and PAF.

However, the Punjab government refused to renew the lease. Instead the Lahore Development Authority has sought ‘permission’ from the Punjab chief minister to include the historic Walton airport into the central business district it has been developing in Gulberg for the last couple of years.

According to a summary sent to the chief minister, the prime minister chaired two meetings at his camp office at Raiwind pertaining to resource generation for development of Lahore.

“The government had criticized the terrorism attack on Ziarat Residency in Balochistan on the grounds that the building was part of the country’s national heritage. However, the federal and provincial governments are bent upon destroying another ‘national heritage,” said the statement.

According to Dr Liaquat Saeed, the chairman of Save Walton, Save Aviation Movement, no airstrip of the country has such a state-of-the-art civil aviation system as Walton. There will be an acute shortage of civil pilots if the airport is shut down.

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2014