On Army Day 2015, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat had stated that of the 73 strategic roads only 22 had been completed after so many years, and ‘all’ of the 14 strategic rail-lines approved remain on paper only. Both the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have been rapping the government periodically for the slow pace of border infrastructure development.
Recently, the CAG expressing concern over the delay in developing border infrastructure, pointed out in March 2017 that even the roads that had been completed were not fit for use.
The CAG report included: one, 61 projects (3,409.27 km) of 73 roads were allotted to Border Roads Organization (BRO), and 12 roads by CPWD, National Buildings Construction Corp (NBCC) and state public works departments, and; two, of 61 roads along LAC, 12 completed by 2012 and of balance 46, only seven completed by March 2016; three, overall 22 roads were completed up to March 2016 despite incurring an expenditure of Rs 4,536 crore against estimated cost of Rs 4,644 crore for 61 roads; four, numerous instances of defective construction of roads on account of unsuitable design or specifications, steep gradient, defective alignment, turning problems for vehicles, improper contract management, poor riding conditions, inadequate drainage facilities and non-connectivity or roads; five, aside from delays, additional expenditure of Rs 63.20 crore on account of corrective action, and; six, non-completion and faulty specifications of works have a serious bearing on the operational capability of the Armed Forces.
Interestingly, the above observations on BRO’s functioning came in immediate aftermath of China inaugurating the second airport in Tibet close to India, ensuring logistical support to its defence forces deployed on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). So, in effect CAG has pointed out that BRO has spent Rs 4,559.2 crore (inclusive of Rs 63.20 crore for corrective action) and completed only 22 roads by March 2016 against the 61 roads it was tasked to complete by 2012 at the cost of Rs 4,644 crore. Obviously the estimate for constructing these 61 roads must have been worked out by the BRO itself. Out of the original estimate, only Rs 84.2 crore remain and 39 roads are yet to be completed. How many more thousand of crores of rupees will be required to complete the balance 39 roads is anyone’s guess but are we not looking at institutionalized corruption at a massive scale which is unconcerned of the operational disadvantages and unaccountable because of certain nexuses of convenience.
Ironically, the feedback from forward areas is that surfacing of some of the new roads built by BRO get skewed with just one winter; naturally more money would be spent (and made) when resurfacing becomes necessary annually wholly or in parts. Conversely, roads built by private enterprises are far, far better. However, BRO officials keep requesting formation commanders in these areas not to demand road construction by private entities. CAG has not commented on the 14 strategic rail-lines approved by the government that have not moved beyond the paper (as mentioned by the Army Chief in 2015), perhaps because CAG may not even be aware about this.
The Doklam standoff has brought into focus once again the poor infrastructure that India has. As on date, only 27 roads’ (963-km) of the 73 strategic roads approved for construction (totaling (4,643-km) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) over 15 years ago have been completed, while the 14 ‘strategic railway lines’ approved for western and eastern fronts remain on paper.
MoS (Home) Kiren Rijiju had told Parliament in July 2016 that the projects would be completed only by 2020, owing to the difficult terrain, adding, “The proposal was expected to be completed in the year 2012-13 but the executive agencies have not adhered to the time schedule due to very high altitude and mountainous, rugged and difficult terrain.” These are actually grievous actions involving national security both by erstwhile governments that gave the contracts, as well as agencies that took the contracts, with CAG stating, “User feedback indicated that there were issues like improper gradient, undulating surface, improper turning radius, minimum passing places and unsatisfactory riding comfort in the 17 out of the 24 roads selected for audit. Even the six roads which had been completed at a cost of Rs164 crore were not fit for running specialized vehicles and equipment because of the above limitations.”
In August 2017, government has approved greater delegation of administrative and financial powers to the BRO for faster execution of construction projects. A chief engineer (CE) of BRO can now accord administrative approval of up to Rs 50 crore, additional director-general (ADGBR) up to Rs 75 crore and the DGBR up to Rs 100 crore for both departmental and contractual mode of execution of works. Similarly, a chief engineer can now accept bids for contracts up to Rs 100 crore, while it will be Rs 300 crore for the ADGBR.
According to a BRO official, “This will ensure the entire tendering process for a majority of the contracts will be completed at the chief engineer/ADGBR level itself.” A CE will now also have powers up to Rs 2 crore to outsource consultancy services, while it will be Rs 5 crore for ADGBR, with DGBR having full powers beyond that. Moreover, the DGBR will now be able to procure indigenous or imported construction equipment of up to Rs 100 crore. MoD has also approved policy guidelines for BRO to adopt the EPC (engineering, procurement, construction) mode of execution, under which it may engage big construction companies to take up road projects on a turnkey basis. According to media reports, the government feels border road construction pace will now pick up with the BRO undergoing revamp under MoD; progressively equipped with more manpower, equipment and specialized machinery; faster clearances for land acquisition and environmental clearances; and, tunneling also being considered for better road connectivity.
China has built nearly 5,000 km of rail network in the Tibetan plateau linking it with mainland all weather roads right up to LAC in similarly inhospitable, rugged and very high altitude terrain to sustain over 30 divisions including 5-6 rapid reaction forces in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Photographs and clips of some of the roads and rail-lines built by China show their excellence through extremely difficult terrain. A serious disadvantage to Indian Armed Forces is China’s superior connectivity to the northeastern parts of India and Ladakh and its capability of rapid mobilization of troops. India does not enjoy this luxury, which adversely affects the defence of Sikkim, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. The government needs to act swiftly to bridge this disadvantage.
Speeding up border infrastructure through greater delegation of administrative and financial powers to the BRO may look good in theory, but have we taken into account how many of the 27 roads completed were constructed by BRO and how many of these were / are in the “unfit for use” category? Are we not making the same mistake of poor indigenous defence production by putting everything ‘through’ the DRDO? Where is the need to put all future border infrastructure development ‘through’ BRO when commanders on ground are saying that roads built by private agencies are far better, even though they have been approached by BRO to plead that they should take up for all future construction through BRO.
The Defence Minister needs to take a call on the issue. It may be better to divide the construction of balance strategic roads between the BRO and private sector (not through BRO). This will provide competition towards the quality of work and adherence to time lines. The target of completion of balance strategic roads by 2020 appears unachievable anyway with bulk of 2017 gone. Simultaneously, work must also begin on the strategic rail lines.