Junior Home Minister, Kiren Rijiju. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

In September 2013, the Indian defense minister at the time, A K Antony, conceded in Parliament that China was superior in terms of border infrastructure as India was late in deciding on building roads and other capabilities near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) because of the impact of 1962 war, describing it as a “collective failure” of all successive Indian governments.

It also reflected poorly on the Congress-led government under prime minister Manmohan Singh and Antony’s decade-long tenure as defense minister.

Significantly, Antony added that besides 73 roads being constructed, 14 strategic railway lines close to the borders with China and Pakistan were planned, and of these 14 planned railway lines, surveys had been completed for 12.

Notably, the development plan for the border infrastructure had been approved by the Indian government 12-15 years before Antony made this statement.

On January 15, 2015, celebrated as Army Day, the army chief at that time expressed concern over the slow progress in development of the border infrastructure, also pointing out that the plan for 14 strategic rail lines still remained on paper.

Later, in July 2016, Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju told Parliament that border roads were supposed to be completed by 2012 or 2013, but had been postponed to 2020. This too is doubtful.

Rijiju, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh state, which China claims as “Lower Tibet,” made no mention of the 14 strategic rail lines. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), which has been pulling up the government periodically over the delay in developing border infrastructure, pointed out in March last year that even roads that had been completed were not fit for use, citing multiple reasons.

Nothing was heard about the 14 strategic rail lines until the recent news in Indian media stating that surveys were under way for four railway lines: the Bilaspur-Manali-Leh railway line (498 kilometers), which will be the highest in the world, overtaking China’s Qinghai-Tibet Railway; the Misamari-Tenga-Tawang (378km); the North Lakhimpur-Bame (Along)-Silapathar (249km); and finally, the Pasighat-Teju-Parsuram Kund-Rupai (227km).

Other significant news was that the combined cost of 2 trillion rupees (US$29 billion) of these lines would be footed by the Ministry of Defense (MoD).

These railway lines are to facilitate the movement of troops and armaments at short notice to the border.

The final location survey (FLS) is expected cost much more, and Indian Railways is expected to submit the final report to the MoD by March 2020. The construction of the rail lines will take five years after the submission of survey reports. This will cost approximately 3.5 billion rupees, out of which the MoD has already paid 1.5 billion rupees to Indian Railways.

With the Narendra Modi-led government in office for four years, this sudden announcement is obviously linked to the 2019 elections. The move seems similar to recent actions such as withdrawing support from the alliance between the People’s Democratic Party and Bharatiya Janata Party governing  Jammu and Kashmir state, the release of the “surgical strikes” video, granting free civilian access to 62 military cantonments, and a public outreach campaign seeking votes for the BJP next year.

Notwithstanding this, the Modi government deserves commendation for at least getting the strategic-rail-lines project off the paper. But a deeper examination is required to dispel what appears to be a scandal of sorts.

First, Antony told Parliament in September 2013 that surveys for 12 of the 14 rail lines had been completed, which obviously were paid for. So what explains these four new surveys? If only two surveys were remaining, why this expenditure of 3.5 billion rupees? How was this figure arrived at, and was outsourcing an option? If surveys are under way, are they along the road alignment, because any survey movement off the road would have been reported in media? If surveys are along the road, why at such a cost?

Second, besides questions about quality, even road constructions are running late by about eight to 10 years as costs escalate. Can the public be expected to believe this combined length of 1,352km of rail lines over difficult terrain will be completed in five years, given that the government doesn’t even have confidence in Indian Railways to construct a short footbridge in Mumbai in 90 days, and tasked the army instead?

Third, the reason cited for the Defense Ministry footing the costs is that there little civilian traffic on these routes. But Ladakh received more than 227,000 tourists last year despite the J&K state government not doing much for tourism beyond Leh. Arunachal Pradesh expects 20% annual growth in tourism, after more than 350,000 visitors in 2016. Modi has been talking of boosting tourism in the northeast, though not much has happened on ground. Can’t India learn from Pakistan how it has opened up remote areas and mountains for tourism and adventure sports to everyone, including foreigners?

Fourth, the most absurd decision is MoD footing the bill of $29 billion. The current bill seems to be around 2.5 trillion plus, which without doubt will multiply as deadlines slip. The bigger question is, how was this amount arrived at without surveys? Current Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman publicly rubbished Parliament’s Standing Committee Report on the poor state of the Indian armed forces. But the fact remains that the Modi government has brought defense allocations down to the lowest since 1962.

With the media periodically pointing out pathetic defense allocations coupled with the incompetence and lack of accountability in the government-dominated defense-industrial complex, how can the Defense Ministry pay $29 billion for these rail lines?

Will China, Pakistan, or any of India’s neighbors tax their defense ministries for rail lines in forward areas? Rail budgets don’t come out of defense allocations. So why is Indian Railways not being pushed to foot the bill, individually or in sync with the Home Ministry?

Some very serious introspection is warranted by the Modi government as India’s military capabilities continue to languish in a substandard logistics framework and infrastructure.

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Prakash Katoch

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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