On November 19, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced a blueprint for construction of strategic roads and permanent integrated buildings along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. It is a project worth 250 billion rupees (US$35 billion).
It envisages construction of 19 roads and 29 permanent integrated buildings. The report states that construction of this critical infrastructure will be a challenging task for the executing agency since the job involves construction of 2-meter-wide roads in mountainous and rugged terrain.
The decision to fast-track the construction of roads and other critical infrastructure on the Chinese border assumes significance as it is happening at a time when India is looking to fend off the dragon’s threat on its northeastern border.
The blueprint is yet to be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The committee is also to consider other border-related projects in such states as Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.
Eighteen coastal border outposts are to be constructed in Gujarat to strengthen the vigil along its coast, the longest mainland coastline in India.
The executing agency is also to take up fencing and road-construction work along the India-Bangladesh border in Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. With reference to resolution of border infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, NDTV reported, “some issues involving forest and wildlife clearance and land acquisition have been resolved,” implying that much more of this is yet to be resolved.
With general elections due next year, political parties ruling in New Delhi and in the state capitals are spending millions of rupees to advertise their achievements since the last general elections in 2014. But there is deafening silence regarding achievements in terms of border infrastructure in this time period.
Ground reports indicate that this is because very little has been done and whatever has come up is of poor quality.
Unfortunately, India is still mostly planning on paper while China’s border infrastructure is vastly superior and is consolidating in Bhutan and along the LAC. Of the 14 strategic railways required, only four appear to be planned.
Both India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have rapped the government periodically for the slow pace of border infrastructure development.
In March 2017, the CAG pointed out that of the 61 projects (3,409.27 kilometers) of 73 roads allotted to the Border Roads Organization (BRO) and 12 roads to the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and other civil organizations, the BRO had completed only 12 roads by 2012, and of the remaining 46, only seven by March 2016. Overall 22 roads had been completed as of March 2016 despite incurring an expenditure of 45.36 billion rupees against the estimated cost of 46.44 billion rupees for 61 roads.
There were also numerous instances of defective construction of roads due to faulty design, steep gradients, defective alignment, vehicle-turning problems, improper contract management, poor riding conditions, inadequate drainage facilities and non-connectivity of roads, this apart from delays, with additional expenditure of 630 million rupees on account of corrective action.
Last year the Ministry of Defense (MoD) gave additional financial and administration powers to the BRO by way of according administrative approval, accepting contracts, procuring construction equipment, and engaging big construction companies to take up road projects on a turnkey basis.
Not much acceleration has happened on ground.
In fact, the whole concept of making the MHA responsible for development of border infrastructure seems to be skewed, as the executing agency is the BRO, which is directly under the MoD.
Charged with external defense, the MoD must be responsible for development of border infrastructure, especially in sensitive regions of Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Sikkim.
Looking at the magnitude of the task, clear division of development of roads must be made between the private sector and the BRO; engaging of private sector for border infrastructure need not be only through the BRO.
Priorities of the MoD and MHA with reference to external threats may not be the same.
The MHA appears charged with more than what it can handle; for example, of the projects slated to be approved by the CCS, the MHA is to address borders with multiple counties as well as the coast.
Political influences and considerations also come into play, as indicated from the mention of 18 coastal border outposts to be constructed in Gujarat while the entire west and east coasts are threatened, with arms smuggling and an influx of Rohingya from the east coast happening in the past.
There is also a need for clarification as to what the proposed “29 permanent integrated buildings” are and for whom these are meant.
A realistic assessment of the state of preparedness of India’s border infrastructure must be made with timelines drawn to fast-track development, incorporating private players for road infrastructure, and complementing capabilities of the BRO.
The LAC should be under the MoD, which should directly control border infrastructure development along that border. Not making these changes would be detrimental to India’s defense.