Galwan Valley face-off: India’s border state infrastructure push has irked China
The proximate cause of China's belligerence is the completion of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) Road, completed by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) in April 2019 after nineteen years of work.
Seventy two hours after 20 Indian soldiers perished inflicting casualties on the Chinese Army, Indian Army completed the construction of a bridge in the same area, which would give better access to the points close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This is an addition to a spree of engineering and infrastructure building in the border regions, which has been a key factor in increased Chinese hostility over the recent years.
The proximate cause of Chinese belligerence is the completion of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) Road, completed by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) in April 2019 after nineteen years of work. This road connects Leh in Ladakh to DBO, the furthest airstrip near the LAC. In 2008, the Indian Air Force landed an AN-32 to reactivate this airstrip at the base of the Karakoram Pass. The area is now accessible by road from Leh.
One of the earliest decisions of the government, taken in July 2014, was to provide a general approval to divert forest land within 100 kilometres (kms) of LAC for road widening and construction. These roads were to be constructed in four states – Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim on the eastern front and Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand on the western side.
Soon after the Doka La face-off with China in September 2017, the government extended this general clearance for all army infrastructure construction and not just roads. This infrastructure included outposts on the border, fencing, parking lots, floodlights among other constructions. Previously such projects needed specific clearances from Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, leading to long approval cycles.
The strategic view taken by the government has meant that about 4,700 kilometres of border roads have been constructed or expanded along China border in the last six years, a 32 percent increase over the previous six years. Similarly, about 14,450 metres of bridges have been completed in these six years in the border areas, an increase of 98 percent over the previous six years. Road surfacing works which progressed at an average of 170 kilometres per year from 2008 to 2017 have averaged 380 kilometres per year in the last three years.
The doctrinaire view taken by the environment ministers Jayanthi Natarajan and Jairam Ramesh before 2014 is well documented, not just for border roads, but infrastructure projects in general. The concerned ministry was also under then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself in the early years of his term. The Modi government has taken a more strategic view of how to make border areas much more accessible.
Another policy change which has occurred in the recent years is delegation of powers to the Director General (DG) of the BRO. In 2017, the DG, BRO was given the financial powers to spend up to Rs 100 crore for procurement of high quality construction equipment, including locally made as well as imported machinery. The BRO was also given the powers to engage large construction firms for turnkey projects. Even within the BRO, the Chief Engineer as well as Additional DG were given extra financial delegation powers to speed up stuck projects.
Several civil infrastructure projects, which can be feeder projects for the use of armed forced if required, have also been expedited in the border states.
The 45-kilometre Sivok-Rangpo rail link to connect West Bengal and Sikkim with a single broad gauge line. The project was inaugurated in 2009 by then Vice President Hamid Ansari and Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee. The work on this project, which will have a tunnel coverage of more than 80 percent with the longest tunnel measuring more than 5 kilometres, only started in 2018. It is now slated to be completed in 2023.
Indian Railways is also currently constructing the world’s highest railway bridge over the Chenab river. This 1.3 kilometre bridge located in the Reasi district will help connect the Kashmir Valley with the mainland via the Banihal – Udhampur rail line. The construction of the bridge started in 2004 but was halted a few years later. The current construction started in 2017 and is expected to be complete by December 2021.
In April 2017, Modi inaugurated the 9.28 kilometre long Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee Chenani-Nashri tunnel, making winter connectivity with Jammu and Srinagar possible. The project started in 2011 and took six years to complete. Similarly, the Zoji-la tunnel and the Z-Morh tunnel, which will connect Srinagar to Ladakh round the year, had been expedited in 2017. Due to the contractor going bankrupt, both projects have been rebid. The fresh contract for the Z-Morh tunnel was awarded in January 2020 and the expected completion now is end-2023.
On the eastern front too, the Bogibeel Bridge inaugurated by Modi in December 2018, provides an important link between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh across the Brahmaputra. Assam’s Dibrugarh is linked to Dhemaji near the Arunachal border through this 4.9 kilometre bridge. It is a rail and road bridge, making movement of people as well as equipment easier to the border areas.
The Char Dham Mahamarg in Uttarakhand, which plans to link the holy sites of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri was also launched in December 2016. The project will promote religious tourism, but also provides an important connectivity option to the border areas in Uttarakhand.
As it appears, these projects are in the Chinese crosshairs. India has been more assertive about its territorial integrity and the importance of enabling infrastructure is not lost on China.
On India’s part, the India-China Border Roads (ICBR) project needs to be completed as soon as possible. Of the original 73 roads planned in 1999, half have been completed, with a lot of push coming between 2014 and 2018 via various government decisions and interventions. Roads like DSDBO are plugging long-known infrastructure gaps.
The author is a public policy analyst based in Pune.
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