At the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Astana on Friday, the Indian side emphasised that “it is important for India and China to work together closely”, and the Chinese agreed that the countries “should focus more on cooperation and work alongside to provide assistance with each other’s development goals”.
The offer of cooperation and assistance is, however, unlikely to be applicable to the 4,057 km-long India-China border, where the state of infrastructure on the Indian side has not kept pace with that on the Chinese side — a situation that will not improve by the commissioning of the Bhupen Hazarika Setu (Dhola-Sadiya bridge) on the Brahmaputra last month.
The slow progress on the construction of India-China Border Roads (ICBR) has led to the deployment of “penny packet”, or numerically small, units of defences by the Army, leading to concern at senior levels in the government.
In March, the Army briefed top government officials on the progress on ICBR. Just 21 of the 73 roads to be built under ICBR have been completed so far. Defence Ministry sources told The Sunday Express that the top officials were deeply concerned about the slow pace of construction.
The construction of these 73 ICBR roads was sanctioned by the UPA government in 2005, and work was to have been completed by 2012. The proposed date of completion has now been revised to 2020.
The execution and monitoring of the construction of the ICBR roads is being carried out by three authorities. The largest number — 33 — are under the Defence Ministry as General Staff roads; only nine have been completed so far. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) is providing for 27 roads, of which just five have been completed. The remaining 13 roads are under the China Study Group headed by the Foreign Secretary; seven of which have been completed.
The delays are reason for serious worry for the Army. Some of the planned roads link to the Dhola-Sadiya bridge, and without them, the strategic usefulness of the bridge is diminished. These roads are also critical for deployment of troops in forward areas, and for easy and quick switching of forces on the border.
A top Army official told The Sunday Express that the absence of roads on the China border had led to “the Line of Control mentality permeating into the minds of our commanders in the East”. He was referring to the fact that virtually every bit of territory on the LoC with Pakistan is occupied, guarded and defended at all times; the Army has neither the men nor the resources for similar deployment on the China border.
Also, the top Army official said, the Army’s operational plans are getting confused with the role of border management in the East. The answer to Chinese infrastructure cannot be troop deployment on “penny packet defences” on the China border, the official said. Roads on the Indian side must get the highest priority, to fight a conventional battle using the advantage of depth inside Indian territory, he argued.
Defence Ministry sources said the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which is entrusted with constructing 61 of the 73 roads, faces many challenges. Besides the hurdles of environmental and labour laws in the Northeastern states, the BRO also faces a shortage of road construction equipment such as high altitude drills and tunnelling equipment, lacks expertise in building roads in mountainous terrain, and is hamstrung by the limited availability of resources for transporting equipment by air. The Ministry has repeatedly briefed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence on these aspects, and the Committee’s reports have flagged these issues.
The Ministry sources, however, discounted the option of using private construction firms instead of BRO. There is a huge difference in the rates of construction, they said — while the BRO builds roads in mountainous terrain at rates between Rs 1.5 crore and Rs 3 crore per kilometre, private firms charge Rs 6-7 crore.
The Ministry is already concerned about the increasing budget for these roads, as their execution keeps getting delayed. “The cost escalation is not commensurate with the progress made,” said an official.