Passing the buck and blaming Army will not solve border roads mess in Arunachal Pradesh

A border road alignment running parallel to the McMohan Line cannot be drawn without taking into account location of the ground defences of the forward troops and location of reserves, considering that the Chinese tail with its phosphorous content catches fire at just the sight of a matchstick.

Prakash Katoch August 11, 2016 18:42:18 IST
Passing the buck and blaming Army will not solve border roads mess in Arunachal Pradesh

As per news reports, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has approved a 2,000-kilometer long road along the McMohan Line connecting Mago-Thingbu in Tawang, the western extremity of Arunachal Pradesh, to Vijaynagar at the eastern extremity of the state.

Between the two extremities, the road will pass through Tawang, East Kameng, Upper Subansiri, West Siang, Upper Siang, Dibang Valley, Desali, Chaglagam, Kibithoo, Dong, Hawai and Vijaynagar on the Arunachal Pradesh border.

Passing the buck and blaming Army will not solve border roads mess in Arunachal Pradesh

Representational image of Indian army. Reuters

The environmental clearances for the road have reportedly already been accorded. According to Arunachal Times, the Army had objected to the earlier alignment of this road and asked for fresh alignment as the area has very little population and sustaining the safety and civilian traffic would end up being the responsibility of the armed forces.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar recently informed the Rajya Sabha in a written reply: “Based on an operational requirement of the Army, the proposal for construction of Tawang to Vijaynagar highway has been endorsed with a few changes in its alignment.” A concept paper with provision for consultancy services to cost Rs 63 crore has reportedly been submitted to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highway and an empowered committee has been holding consultations with all stakeholders.

Earlier on 23 June, news headlines had quoted a senior Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) official as saying that the above-mentioned road project had hit the “Indian Army hurdle as the Army was opposed to constructing any road close to the disputed border with China”. The Hindu report mentioned a meeting in MHA where the Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) had opposed the project saying that the alignment of the proposed road was not conducive from a security point of view.

The DGMO reportedly opposed the demand of opening advance landing grounds (ALGs) for civilian use in these forward areas. The news report also included these details: one, the proposed road was 1,500-kilometer long parallel to the China border; two, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways approached for the project declined to work on it, citing that it was financially not viable; three, MHA was looking to rope in an international contractor to complete the project; and four, Mechuka ALG was inaugurated by a senior Indian Air Force (IAF) officer without the consent of the state government.

Bashing the military is media norm in India. It is secure because of the knowledge that there would be no comeback. But let us first look at this business of IAF inaugurating Mechuka ALG without the consent of the state government.

Mechuka ALG has been operational for a long period of time and was surely not activated by the IAF without immediate sanction of the MoD. If the state government takes umbrage, it should direct its unhappiness to the MoD directly or through MHA, certainly not at the IAF.

But more significantly, how was the first alignment drawn and by whom? Surely, it can’t be the state authority picking up a pen and drawing a line across a map or a sketch. A border road alignment running parallel to a sensitive border with China cannot be drawn without taking into account location of the ground defences of the forward troops and location of reserves, considering that the Chinese tail with its phosphorous content catches fire at just the sight of a matchstick.

In essence, such alignment should not have been worked out ‘without’ including the Border Road Organisation (BRO) directly under the MoD, if not exclusively by the BRO, which doesn’t appear to be the case. Even if MHA didn’t want BRO into the project, its inclusion in working out the alignment of the road would have automatically taken into account army concerns. This is because the BRO has a considerable army component and is headed by a three-star General from the Corps of Engineers.

On the other hand, if the BRO did work out the initial alignment and without any reference to the army, then it could have only happened because of the MoD. On balance, there appears to have been unwanted adhocism at play and unwarranted blame throwing on the military, which is hardly healthy.

What has been given a total miss, by design or default, is the army’s concern of linking this proposed strategic road to existing road heads south of it. In May last year, then Minister of State (Defence) had stated that MoD has set itself a deadline of 2018 to complete infrastructure projects in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, saying, “The Chinese infrastructure is right up to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), whereas we are at places 50-100 km away from the LAC. This is now being addressed. By 2018 — a year here or there — we plan to put the infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh and the Northeast in place.”

This is a tall order considering the vagaries of terrain and weather in forward areas resulting in limited working season coupled with the intricate tasks of refurbishing ALGs, building strategic railway lines, tunnels, and arterial roads leading up to the LAC.

Hopefully, these deadlines will be kept, which should also cater for the much needed additional military deployments that are now taking place. In meeting such deadlines, we also have this peculiar problem of a foreign-funded or blackmailed cross-section disrupting development of infrastructure, to include political parties vying for more power.

More importantly, the promise of “by 2018 — a year here or there” needs to be strictly adhered to, not only considering the highly developed Chinese infrastructure but also the fact that Chinese military reorganisation is to be completed by 2020, beyond which they have declared progressing their territorial claims (however illegal).

The operationalisation of ALGs is a good development in air travel and must be extended to the public. We have been doing this in Kargil which is directly under observation of Pakistani posts in PoK, so there is no reason we cannot do so in forward areas along the LAC.

But what the government must ensure is acquisition of additional airlift assets for such purpose. What has been shoved under the carpet over the years is the fact that the training hours for airborne and heliborne operations have been drastically reduced over the years for such reasons and unavoidable sudden requirements of disaster relief.

The government needs to do a reality check about this. As for developing the border infrastructure in telescoped time, the resources of the BRO obviously need to be augmented and private players brought in. As importantly, in the race to show achievements, quality should not be sacrificed, considering some new roads in forward areas have lost their surfacing just after one winter. Also, while MoD has talked about Sikkim and Arunachal, eastern Ladakh must not be lost sight of, where a couple of months back the army was being blamed for stopping road construction.

The author is veteran of the Special Forces of the Indian Army.

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