Millennium Post

Highways to nowhere

While Indian railways made a belated start to link Sevoke in north Bengal with Rangpo in Sikkim, to improve rail and road infrastructure close to the Chinese border, new road building in most areas are running long behind schedule.

As completion schedules have been pushed back, construction costs have gone up. The reasons for the delay in the road building projects are manifold: time consuming land acquisition, politically sponsored resistance, securing permission from various agencies like Environment and Wildlife authorities, poor coordination with state governments and delayed financial sanctions.

This leaves India somewhat under-prepared for self-defence against possible incursions across the Himalayas. Experts point out that in the Tibet region alone, the Chinese have nearly 2,90,000 troops, at least three functioning airfields and bases, backed up by all weather road and rail links. Divisions of troops can be moved to the line of control within 48 hours. There are six units specially trained for rapid movement and action. China has set up this impressive infrastructure over a very difficult terrain in the world at an estimated expenditure of $320 billion in recent years.

India, after delaying work on proposed road and rail links for nearly two decades, finally launched the construction of the 52 km ling rail link between Sevoke and Rangpo in Sikkim late in 2009. Only 1 km of line will run through Sikkim, the rest lie in Bengal territory. Estimated cost: Rs 1335 crore. The new line will run over 100 bridges and through 13 tunnels, a challenging assignment for engineers.

Incidentally, it was the ruling British who had thought of linking Siliguri with Sikkim, back in 1909. By 1915 a metre gauge link had been set up between Siliguri and the border of Kalimpong. Observers find it curious that despite upheavals in the world during the intervening decades, Government of India never thought it necessary to upgrade its logistical connectivity in the north Bengal/northeast region, not even after the 1962 border war with China! A colossal indifference towards the development of the Eastern region, coupled with an astounding ignorance of strategic realities, characterised the mindset of New Delhi-based rulers.

Where road building is concerned, Government of India had decided to build at least 558 new link roads as close to the Pakistan and China borders as possible, involving a length of 27,386 km through highly varying terrain and climatic conditions. The work would be completed in two phases, the estimated cost being $10 billion [Rs 500 billion]. The Chinese were known to have build three highways covering 6,050 km and 55 new roads already, reaching almost up to the border with India. In the first phase, the Border Roads Organisation, which works in conjunction with  different state Public Works Department's in some areas, were instructed to build 277 roads, covering 1,31,000 km, at a cost of Rs 246 billion. In the second phase, 281 roads 4,886 km long would be built at a cost of Rs 252 billion. Completion of work was scheduled in 2015.

By present indications, it is clear that India is running much behind schedule. Only days ago, the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Defence pulled up the ministry of defence for the tardy progress in road building. At least 126 projects in which the  Border Roads Organisation (BRO) was involved had been delayed for the reasons mentioned already. In Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh, 73 road building projects had been delayed. Work was completed only on 16 roads.

The Indian Air Force was instructed to set up airbases and airfields to improve communication.

The union home ministry is currently initiating legislation that would exempt defence department work from having to secure permission/clearance from wildlife preservation authorities, as a measure to help speed up construction work in the poorly served border regions. IPA
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