As China asserts itself, India must give its urgent attention to addressing gaps in border infrastructure
The focus on border infrastructure unfortunately comes up only during situations like the Doka La plateau confrontation. China, meanwhile, is rapidly asserting itself.
A Chinese team has arrived in Nepal to discuss and initiate a technical survey of the Kyirong-Kathmandu railway that will connect Nepal with the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is part of President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’. The land port at Kyirong in Shigatse Prefecture of TAR is the biggest land trade channel between TAR and South Asia. China plans to expand the rail network from Shigatse to Kyirong by 2020, which will be connected to Kathmandu reportedly at the behest of the Nepalese government. It goes without saying that the rail link has strategic connotations due to its proximity to the Siliguri corridor and existing north-south road links in Nepal. China has slowly increased its grip over Nepal, which may even cast a shadow over next year’s general elections in Nepal. The rail link needs to be viewed with other developments. For example, while India has been focusing primarily on hydropower projects in Nepal, China recently signed a deal with Nepal for gas exploration in the sensitive Terai Region bordering India.
The Maoist insurgency in Nepal was a long-term strategic move of China. Baburam Bhattarai alias Prachanda is a Chinese protégé who before becoming prime minister had even made a statement to the Nepalese media that “the ultimate fight will be with the Indian Army”. PLA soldiers in uniform have been observed working in northern Nepal in areas adjoining the border with Tibet which are known to have uranium deposits. China has deployed PLA in these areas to grab uranium exploration and block Tibetan refugees. Such PLA deployment also leads to Chinese influence for taking tracts of Nepalese territory adjacent to TAR on ‘lease’ in a future timeframe for 50-100 years, akin to Gilgit-Baltistan (50 years), Gwadar (49 years) and Hambantota (99 years). Additionally, the fact that the Chinese are influencing the political and bureaucratic hierarchy in Nepal through periodic ‘special gift packages’ is hardly a secret. The distance between Kathmandu and Kyirong in TAR is 174 km. It can be expected that for numerous projects in China, including this rail link, China will use the loan-debt-equity trap (as in case of Hambantota-CPEC) to get Nepal into its gravitational pull for many decades, if not in perpetuity.
Have we taken note of the China-Nepal mechanism to share intelligence to contain anti-China activities in Nepal? There have been no extraditions of anti-India elements, but Tibetan refugees fleeing China have been handed back to Chinese authorities, where they may simply be put to death or imprisoned for life. It is significant to note that during the recent 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping focused on speeding up development of Xinjiang and TAR areas. At the conclusion of the Congress, he also responded to two Tibetan herders (from Village Yume—close to the McMohan Line and the Indian village of Taksing) who had written to him, exhorting them to set down roots in the border area, safeguard Chinese territory and develop their hometown. Xi also called upon the PLA to be prepared for war. Not only does China’s PLA have a presence in development projects globally, PLA along with herders undertakes forward reconnaissance. The border infrastructure of China has developed at incredible speed—with metal roads servicing forward posts. China recently inaugurated a new road linking TAR with Nepal. China’s bold incursion into Doka La plateau in Bhutan also aimed at constructing a road link to Doka La.
Compare the above developments with the state of border infrastructure on the Indian side, where the 14 strategic railway lines approved in the past are still on paper, and may hardly make any headway before the Kyirong-Kathmandu railway gets operationalized. As on date, only 27 roads (963 kilometres) of the 73 strategic roads approved for construction (4,643 kilometres) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) over 15 years ago have been completed, while the 14 ‘strategic railway lines’ approved for the western and eastern fronts remain on paper. MoS (Home) Kiren Rijiju told Parliament in July 2016 that the projects would be completed only by 2020, owing to the difficult terrain, adding, “The proposal was expected to be completed in the year 2012-13 but the executive agencies have not adhered to the time schedule due to very high altitude and mountainous, rugged and difficult terrain.” In a severe indictment, the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) recently stated, “User feedback indicated there were issues like improper gradient, undulating surface, improper turning radius, minimum passing places and unsatisfactory riding comfort in 17 out of the 24 roads selected for audit. Even the six roads which had been completed at a cost of Rs 164 crore were not fit for running specialised vehicles and equipment because of the above limitations.” Importantly, the CAG only undertook a selective survey, not of all projects; otherwise the situation would have been far worse.
The focus on border infrastructure unfortunately comes up only during situations like the Doka La plateau confrontation. There is no way that the border roads can be completed by 2020 as claimed by the government. But even in whatever is being done, execution remains the key. Narendra Modi is inaugurating a new bridge on the Brahmaputra river linking Dibrugarh to the north. But the road going north from the bridge is caving in every 40-50 metres because it is running for several kilometres through paddy fields and no revetments on the edges of the road have been made. Beyond the paddy fields, it is ridden with potholes after just one rainy season. The road was completed over a time span of more than a year by the Border Road Organization (BRO) and handed over to the PWD, so the kind of repairs done can be guessed. But this region is very much in the rear. The roads to the forward posts are so narrow that for kilometres, two vehicles cannot cross, so there has to be a one-way convoy system. This is the situation when China is eyeing the entire Arunachal Pradesh, is flexing its muscles, and objecting to the Defence Minister visiting Itanagar, while we glibly talk of quick mobilisation.
The irony here is that the construction of border infrastructure is being looked after by the MHA, while the the BRO is directly under the MoD. The Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence recently visited Jaisalmer. They need to go to the northeast, and so should the defence minister to take actual stock of the border infrastructure on the ground. Roads made by the private sector are far better than the BRO; a view held not only by the Army in border areas but also by the ITBP officials. This needs to be encouraged more by providing incentives and avenues to private operators. However, in August 2017, the government approved a greater delegation of administrative and financial powers to the BRO for faster execution of construction projects. This is akin to ensuring the development of all weapons through DRDO, the consequences of which we have been suffering in the past decades. In the ultimate analysis, neglect of border infrastructure can cost us dearly.
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