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Millennium Post

Frontiers of insecurity

India’s catch-up efforts to match China’s logistic connectivity right up to its vulnerable northern border, still remain mired in a maze of bureaucratic confusion and drift.

Major road and rail connectivity projects cleared long ago have seen either no progress or been given a quiet burial. Most were cleared after detailed preliminary surveys and due post-survey concurrence. The question naturally arises, why such projects are not carried out after elaborate time consuming preliminary planning, not to mention the costs involved. Work on one of the key rail links, proposed between Siliguri in West Bengal and Rangpo in Sikkim, has taken a hit. As Union Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee had laid the foundation stone for the project in 2009. The amount sanctioned for setting up the 52.7 kilometres long broad gauge link, involving the construction of many tunnels and bridges through a difficult terrain, was then pegged at Rs 1,339 crore.

By the time P K Bansal acknowledged the lack of progress in the project earlier this year in Parliament as the Railway Minister, the cost had risen to Rs 3,380 crore, of which Rs 52 crore had been spent. The centre is yet to give Environmental clearance for the construction. The West Bengal government blames the centre for the delay.

Observers concede that for once the state may be correct in accusing the centre. But Kolkata itself has not always covered itself with glory while dealing with similar projects elsewhere.

To give only two instances. Bangladesh has been long complaining about the pitiful condition of the Jessore Road linking Kolkata with the border town of Bongaon, which goes right through the western Bangladesh districts. There is much road traffic on the stretch, which serves two landports, Benapole (Bangladesh) and Petrapole (West Bengal).

And China joins Bangladesh in complaining that the pathetic condition of the roads in West Bengal linking Kunming to Kolkata, as part of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, is a major hindrance to smooth traffic! Repeated appeals to the state Government to improve matters have proved abortive.

In view of the high level of Chinese real and road connectivity between the Tibet region, bordering India’s north/northeast with the mainland, defence authorities had suggested the construction of a two lane highway linking Chalsa in West Bengal to Nathu La, which is well connected to interior Chinese areas. This was of vital importance in that the main national highway 31A linking Sikkim with the rest of India is vulnerable to frequent disruptions owing to landslides and occasional earthquakes. The people of Sikkim face an acute shortage of basic supplies, cut off from the mainland. The Government also hopes to increase the volume of trade at Nathu La by the end of 2013-14 fiscal.

The construction cost of building the 176 kms highway was estimated at Rs 400 crore by the Border Roads Organisation. The proposal ran into a hurdle as the Forest department of West Bengal Government objected to the road alignment on environmental grounds. However, the state government did suggest an alternate route linking Chalsa through Jaldhaka to Ranipool in Sikkim. But this would shift the route considerably away from the borders of Bhutan and China, unlike the first proposal.

As for improving rail communications within Sikkim, linking Rangpo close to the border with Gangtok, a Rs 4,165-crore project, it has been shelved, as it is not on the list of national projects, unlike the proposed Rangpo-Siliguri link.

At present, relations between India and China is more relaxed with both sides about to participate in the third round of hand-in-hand (HIH) army exercises at Chengdu, according to a website. The earlier rounds were held at Kunming and Belgaum. The exercises, incorporating anti terrorism manoeuvres, would be at the company level this time.

Hardline analysts on the Indian side point out that such joint p[programmes have somehow not made much difference to the situation on the ground, where the Chinese troops have frequently trespassed into territory that India regards as its own in Arunachal Pradesh and other areas.

Worse, of late there are similar complaints about encroachments on Manipur territory by Myanmar troops, which India has already taken up with the concerned authorities. Here, Burmese soldiers are alleged to have cut down trees and putting up some constructions, overriding Indian objections. Such a trend clearly indicates the need for a greater Indian army presence in the region as a whole.

China analysts say that apparently the Beijing does not enjoy total control over the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), the personnel of which is usually involved in such trespassing activity. As in other countries, the army at times functions like an autonomous lobby in some matters. Generally they are involved in making excursions into Indian territory and staying on for some time, before returning to China. Usually they leave after the Indian Government takes up such matters with Chinese authorities at the highest level, but not before.

Be that as it may, defence authorities are not taking chances, at least in putting up infrastructure, where air defences are concerned. Now a new air base is being set up over 750 acres of land at Damdim in the Dooars area of Jalpaiguri district. Already 500 acres have been acquired, and West Bengal’s Minister for North Bengal affairs, Mr. Gautam Deb says the rest of land would also be procured.

Simultaneously, to ensure better strategic linkage with Sikkim, there is a proposal to build a road from the nearest Sikkim border through Garubathan, Lava, Algara and Pedong areas. In North Bengal this would be the fourth air base, in addition to the ones now operating at Bagdogra, Hashimara and Binaguri.
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