To those who have travelled to the border areas, the first thing that BRO (Border Roads Organisation) brings to their mind is some witty road signs that it puts up: “Better Mister Late than Late Mister”, “Feel my curves slowly”, and “Drive like hell and you will soon be there”. The BRO’s road signs may bring a smile on your face but their track-record on maintaining and constructing border roads would not. It is something which the armed forces regularly complain about, and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence doesn’t disagree either.
In its 19th report before Parliament earlier this month, the standing committee was scathing about BRO’s performance. Headed by the BJP MP, Major General (retd) BC Khanduri, who was minister for roads in the Vajpayee government, the panel asked the “BRO to explain the reasons for the “shortages” in meeting the targets”.
The panel was particularly concerned about the continued delays in completion of the strategic Indo-China Border Roads (ICBR). Under ICBR, the erstwhile UPA government had sanctioned the construction of 73 roads in 2005. BRO was entrusted with 61 of them (total length of 3,417 km), which were to be completed by 2012. Only 21 of them of 661.59 km length have been completed so far. Work on two of them has not even started till now. BRO has revised the proposed completion date to 2020 for the balance 40 roads but not many are willing to trust the BRO.
Srinath Raghavan, former member of the National Security Advisory Board says, “Discounting the fact that China has an advantage geographically, our progress on the roads on China border has been slow. Institutional changes have been made, periodical reviews are being done by the government, but it is still not moving in the way it should have. This needs push from the top-level political leadership now.”
But it is just not about the ICBR. The performance of BRO has been equally poor when it comes to maintenance and construction of other roads entrusted to it. In 2015-16, BRO had planned for 2,441 km of formation work, but it was able to do only 934 km till February. In surfacing work, it planned for 3,870 km but achieved only 1,646 km. For resurfacing, the target was 2,829 km but the BRO completed only 1,860 km. Similar was the case with major bridges. Out of 4,245 meters of bridges it planned to construct, BRO completed only 1,299 meters. The current year is not an exception. The inability of BRO to meet its planned targets is a constant thread running over past many years.
The problem lies with fixing targets which are beyond the capacity of the BRO. BRO itself says that it has the potential for 1,264 km of formation work, while its target in last three years was 2,441, 2,191 and 2,120 km, respectively. In surfacing, BRO can do 2,351 km but its targets over the last three years have been 3,870, 3,087 and 3,532 km, respectively. Same is the case with other works. While it can make bridges of only 2,589 metres in a year, BRO has targeted 4,245, 5,574 and 3,430 metres of bridges in the last three years, respectively. No wonder, it consistently fails to meet the targets.
Yearly plans have to be approved by the Army, and the Director General of Military Operations chairs that committee. Former DGMO, Lt General (retd) Vinod Bhatia says, “The priorities of the BRO are skewed and a lot of projects taken up by them for state governments and other agencies have no value for the army. These are resources which should be optimally employed for the critical roads required by the army.”
Until last year, the Ministry of Defence blamed the dual control of the BRO as a reason for its poor performance. Since its raising in 1960, BRO had dual masters: Ministry of Roads and Highways for funds, and Ministry of Defence for operational control. In January 2015, the Ministry of Defence was given the full control. The BRO’s budget now forms part of the Defence budget. BRO argues that it suffers from poor budgetary allocations. For road maintenance, it had asked Rs 839 crore at RE (revised estimate) stage in FY16, but was finally allocated Rs 636.20 crore by the finance ministry. In FY15 too, BRO had sought Rs 920 crore but was allocated only 640.95 crore for maintenance of roads.
Overall too, BRO had projected Rs 5,044 crore as its budgetary demand for FY16 which was slashed to Rs 3,075.73 crore by the finance ministry. This was a repetition of FY15, when the BRO was allocated Rs 3,030.57 crore against a projected demand of Rs 4,056 crore. The finance ministry, in turn, contends, that it imposes ceiling on the allocation of budget based on the actual expenditure incurred during the last fiscal, actual expenditure in the current fiscal and as per the guidelines issued from time to time for austerity measures.
Such was the situation over funds that after the allocation of funds at BE (Budget estimate) stage in FY16, defence minister Manohar Parrikar wrote to finance minister Arun Jaitley for an additional allocation of Rs 1,096 crore to BRO. The finance minister replied that the allotment could be reviewed on the basis of pace of execution of next financial year and additional provision, if required, shall be suitably provided. The defence ministry subsequently took up the case in May 2015 and again at RE stage but the additional allocation was never made. The standing committee was so incensed by this that in its report, it asked the defence ministry to raise the matter again “at the highest level in the government”.
If funds are a problem, then so is organisation, manpower and equipment. There is huge shortage of equipment. BRO has only 177 stone crushers instead of 721, and 3,758 tippers instead of the 6,263 tippers it is authorised for. Instead of 1,851 officers, BRO has only 1,336 officers; and 33,723 subordinates against the authorised 40,747. Moreover, the BRO is staffed by officers from the Border Roads Engineering Service (BRES) and personnel from the General Reserve Engineer Force, which form the permanent cadre. They are supplemented by officers and men from the army. By convention, the Director General of the BRO is Lt General from Army’s Corps of Engineers but the senior most officers of BRES contend that he is junior to them. Similar issues of inter se seniority and command exist at other levels in the BRO, leading to functional problems in executing the projects.
“BRO is beset with leadership and cadre issues which will have to be resolved fast, if BRO has to perform the tasks it was raised for,” argues Lt General (retd) Bhatia.
Even the critics of BRO acknowledge that it works in very harsh terrains, in inclement weather, and against odds as varied as shortage of labour, delay in land acquisition and provision of environmental clearances. But these cannot be an excuse to not deliver as any shortfalls by BRO directly affect the security of the nation.