After Bollywood, distrust of Pakistan and cricket (not necessarily in that order), what unites most Indians is our fear of China. The RSS worries about the Chinese cyber threat. The CII is wary of cheap Chinese hardware. Our pharmas are jittery about their dependence on imports from China. Even our sportspersons tend to lose it in the mind against Chinese competition.
But the most common frustration among Indians—from the National Conference to the Trinamool Congress and from senior intelligence officials to intelligent think tanks—is that we have failed to match China’s infrastructural progress. A vast road and rail network in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) gives Beijing the military edge, massive hydro-electric projects close to our borders -- it's a nightmare unfolding.
It is ironic that the big bully at Saarc should feel so threatened by its only bigger neighbour. It is still more ironic that India, instead of learning from its mistakes, is so desperate to play catch-up on China’s terms.
The Chinese feats look impressive. The train to Lhasa has been running across the roof of the world since 2006. The Tibetan capital is also connected to the Sikkim border 430 km away and the journey takes less than three hours. Since 2008, road network in the TAR has expanded by almost 20,000 km. As a result, China can apparently deploy 30 divisions or 4,50,000 soldiers at the borders within a month and outnumber our forces by at least 3:1.
Since the drubbing in 1962, the Indian strategy was to keep border roads in terrible conditions to stop an invading Red Army from marching in too fast. It took us nearly four decades to hit the other extreme. Now we want 18 strategic tunnels so that troop movements remain invisible. A 9-km tunnel under Rohtang pass at 13,400-feet is being built to facilitate mobilisation along the Sarchu-Leh region. Apparently, five more are proposed in Jammu and Kashmir, two in Sikkim and quite a few in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Work is also in progress since 1999-2000 on 73 all-weather border roads, out of which 42 are to be ready by the end of this year. According to media reports, the capability development plan on the northern borders is worth Rs 26,155 crore while border infrastructure projects worth Rs 9,243 crore are being carried out in the eastern theatre. There are also calls to take the railways up to Nathu La in Sikkim.
Almost all of these projects threaten to ravage virgin ecosystems in remote areas. The standard construction process in India involves indiscriminate blasting in the hills that destroys a lot more than is necessary, including vast areas in the slopes where the debris slides down. The laggard pace of construction so typical of India prolongs the damage.
At each camping site, migrant labourers set up large camps and fell forests for firewood because contractors do not provide fuel. They divert water from natural sources for both construction and household use and dump garbage, including solid waste, in the open. Worse, most of these labour camps become permanent settlements after completion of projects.
Does China fare any better? For all its cutting edge technology that lays down roads and tracks in record time, it could not (or did not really care to) insulate the environment from its development rush. While little information is available on the ecological impact of its various smaller projects, the famous Qinghai-Lhasa railway tracks, and the highway parallel to it, have caused irreversible damage to what biologist George Schaller called "the high altitude Serengeti" – the expansive home to a fascinating range of flora and fauna, 142 of those endangered.
Worst has been the impact on the chiru, the highly-endangered Tibetan antelope. The alignments cut off the migratory routes that the animals take to their northern breeding grounds, just like the caribou do in North America or the wildebeest in East Africa. Though 33 wildlife passages have been created along this 1,956-km railroad, these are far from adequate for providing connectivity. In Canada, a 75-km highway through the Banff national park has 22 underpasses. In all of India, animal passages do not add up to even a dozen.
At an average height of 4,000 meters, Tibet’s delicate ecosystem takes decades, even centuries, to recover fully and large scale destruction of vegetation is leading to rapid desertification on both sides of the road and railways. The development spurt has shrunk Tibet’s grassland areas by more than one-fourth since the 1970s. Between 1949 and 1985, Tibet already lost nearly half its forest to extraction of timber worth $54 billion.
Meanwhile, improved connectivity has made exploration and transportation of minerals convenient in Tibet which is China’s last refuge after having exhausted all major non-ferrous minerals. By 2020, half of China’s major mineral reserves may go empty. Rapid growth exacts its price. Yet, there is no clarity on environmental safety measures yet in and around Tibet’s minefields.
The same peril has forced China to turn to Tibet for water and electricity. River water is being diverted from west to east China to support agriculture. The hydroelectric project on Yamdrok Tso, a sacred Tibetan lake, had triggered a fierce environmental debate in the 1990s. While construction of a 510 MW plant at Zangmu in TAR is going on now, China has announced three new projects to take the cumulative yield from Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) beyond 1,500 MW.
In response, India signed MoUs for 140 hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh alone. To match China’s three new dams, the Environment ministry has hurriedly cleared two projects in Tawang district. In doing so, it skirted recommendations made by statutory bodies to examine the cumulative impact of 13 projects within just 2,085 sq km of Tawang before clearing any. It made up a lie of an excuse saying that Tawang II was the first and only project cleared and the rest would be subject to cumulative impact assessment. Last April, the 780MW Nyamjang chhu project—coming up on a tributary of the Tawang river—got the ministry’s nod.
While governments in India bulldoze laws and regulations to compete with China, what does the Chinese experience really tell us?
Due to intense developmental activities, the roof of the world is getting hot. Cracks have developed in the railroad’s concrete structures as its permafrost foundation is sinking and cracking in some sections of the 550-km unstable stretch. While Xinhua reported that the government did not expect that the tracks would last the next 40 years, foreign engineers in the project gave it 20 years. Even reinforcing the main Lhasa highway cost China $146.6 million in the last decade.
High levels of deforestation in Tibet has also led to acute sedimentation in the Huang Ho, the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), the Yangtze and the Senge Khabab (Indus). More dams are not helping these rivers that support nearly half the world’s population and much of its biodiversity. If over-harnessing continues, China will have to invent new water sources for irrigation and substitutes for hydro power. Inexplicably, China is yet to tap Tibet’s Sahara-like solar energy potential before killing its mighty rivers.
While India cannot quite escape the climatic impact of any major ecological change in the Tibet plateau as it influences pan-Asian weather, we are rushing to destroy our own rivers, forests and mountains by blindly emulating the short-sighted neighbour. We are trading very tangible water, food and livelihood security for a perception called national security. There may or may not be an Indo-China war in the future but, at this rate, we will certainly not need one to doom ourselves.