The ongoing standoff at the Bhutan trijunction in the Sikkim sector was triggered by an attempt by China to build a road through the Doklam plateau that Beijing and Thimphu both claim. The plateau overlooks Tibet’s Chumbi Valley, a Himalayan passageway into which the Nathu La pass opens, and which is of great strategic importance for India’s ‘chicken’s neck’ sector connecting the Northeast to the mainland.
Over the decades, China has aggressively built road and rail infrastructure close to the 4,000-km disputed border with India, a project that India has only recently begun to make efforts at matching on its side. The building of roads, intended to facilitate movement of troops and military hardware in the event of a border conflict has, however, made slow and uneven progress. In its audit of ‘Construction of Indo China Border Roads by Border Roads Organisation’ submitted to Parliament in March 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India reported that as of end-March 2016, most roads were incomplete — and the completed ones were unfit to carry heavy equipment, including weaponry.
How many roads is India building along the border with China?
In 1997, the China Study Group, a policy body headed by India’s National Security Advisor, identified strategically important border roads required for brisk and easy movement of troops to the northern and eastern frontiers. In 1999, the Cabinet Committee on Security approved the Group’s proposal for the construction of 13 roads, to be completed by 2006 — a deadline that was subsequently extended to 2011. In 2007, a sub-committee headed by the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) identified 33 General Staff (GS) roads as “Indo China Border Roads” or ICBRs. Another 27 roads were identified by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) in consultation with the DGMO. Of these total 73 ICBRs, 61, with a total length of 3409.27 km, were to be constructed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the body that builds and maintains roads infrastructure in the border areas.
So, what did the Auditor find?
Sixty-one ICBRs should have been completed by 2012, but on March 2016, after spending 98% (Rs 4,536 crore) of the estimated cost of Rs 4,644 crore, only 22 roads (36%) were complete. The Auditor studied 24 ICBRs in detail and found that six of the completed roads “were not fit for running of specialised vehicles or equipments”. Seventeen roads on which Rs 1,797.28 crore had been spent by March 2016, were of substandard quality.
The roads are spread across five states — Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim. According to the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, presented to Parliament in March, the 39 incomplete ICBRs will be completed only by 2020 — provided the works progress on schedule. Of these 39 under-construction roads, 16 are in Arunachal Pradesh, 12 in Uttarakhand, eight in J&K, two in Sikkim and one in Himachal Pradesh.
But what has caused the delay?
Before beginning work, BRO conducts a “Reconnaissance, Survey and Trace Cut” (RSTC) to determine the route alignment, prepare project documents and make project estimates. The Audit found the RSTC was in many cases “not carried out properly as the gradient, soil classification, alignment of the road taken at the time of carrying out RSTC were at wide variance with the conditions encountered during the execution”.
Another major reason, the Audit found, was the delay in submission and approval of the Annual Works Plan each year from 2011. With approval for funds and manpower projections awaited, works were begun on the basis of ad hoc estimates. Estimates and annual targets were revised after six months of execution of works, but the revised targets too could not be met in 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2015-16.
Besides affecting strategic preparedness, what other problems are the delays causing?
The CAG said many stretches were abandoned because of a change in the alignment of roads midway through the construction. The Border Roads Development Board (BRDB), which controls the pursestrings for the BRO’s work, had told the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) in 2012 that works worth Rs 100 crore had been rendered useless because of such problems. “The works executed have been manipulated in papers with financial irregularities of several crores of rupees and that it was reflective of increasing corruption and lack of accountability in BRO,” the BRDB said in its report.
Faulty execution of construction works has caused heavy losses to the exchequer, the CAG said. Because of “improper RSTC and lack of supervision of work” on the strategic DSDBO (Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie) road, running parallel and close to the Line of Actual Control in Leh, for example, the exchequer had suffered losses of Rs 277.19 crore, the Auditor said.
An internal inquiry carried out by BRDB between June 2010 and August 2014 revealed serious financial and technical irregularities in the construction of roads. Courts of Inquiry in these cases were not finalised even after the passage of between two and eight years, the CAG said.
Another loss has been that of human lives. As work dragged on in higher altitudes and bad weather conditions, 21 General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF) personnel and 48 Casual Paid Labourers (CPLs) were killed in work site and military transport accidents between April 2012 and March 2016. Prolonged deployment of personnel in difficult areas without any means of communication with their families, lack of adequate medical support, and non-availability of entertainment facilities had affected their physical and psychological health, the Auditor said.
And what is the official explanation for the delay?
The Director General, Border Roads provided the following reasons for failing to achieve targets in the building of ICBR roads: high altitudes, reduction in the efficiency of vehicles and equipment due to extreme atmospheric conditions, problems in funding, non-availability of vehicles, equipment and plants, and the closure of roads for six months. The Auditor said the “reasons are not convincing as these aspects of terrain and climatic conditions” were to be taken into consideration while preparing annual plans.