With general elections approaching fast, there is news once again about plans for border infrastructure, albeit these are still on paper. This time the media on January 13, 2019 has quoted the recently released Central Public Works Department (CPWD) Annual Report (2018-19) stating the government plans to construct 44 strategic roads along the border with China and over 2,100 km axial and lateral roads in Punjab and Rajasthan, abutting Pakistan. The nearly 4097-kilometre-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China touches areas from J&K to Arunachal Pradesh.
The 44 ‘strategically important’ roads along the India-China border are to ensure quick mobilization of troops in case of a conflict. The report says, “The CPWD has been entrusted with the construction of 44 strategically important roads along the Indo-China Border spanning 5 states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.” Cost of construction of these 44 roads as per DPRs (Detailed Project Reports) is approximately Rs 21,040 cr, which is yet to be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), headed by the Prime Minister.
The CPWD report also states lateral and axial roads measuring over 2,100 km will be built with a cost of around Rs 5,400 cr in Rajasthan and Punjab along the Indo-Pak border; 945 km lateral roads and 533 km axial roads in Rajasthan at tentative cost Rs 3,700 cr, and; 482 km lateral roads and 219 km axial roads in Punjab at tentative cost Rs 1,750 cr. DPRs for these projects are still “under preparation” by CPWD. The irony is that despite the 2017 India-China Doklam standoff and periodic transgressions-cum-intrusions by China astride the LAC, which increased post disengagement after the Doklam standoff, we are still planning on paper. In the instant case, the 44 strategically important roads are yet to be cleared by the CCS, while DPRs for the lateral and axial roads planned in Rajasthan and Punjab are still under preparation.
A number of questions arise with respect to the above projects, which include:
• When will these projects get underway?
• What is the time schedule of their completion especially given the limited working period close to LAC due weather conditions?
• What is the strategy to ensure timely completion of projects and preclude cost escalation?
• What will be the inter se priority for construction of roads and and who will decide them?
• What will be the system of monitoring construction?
• Shouldn’t the Army be party to the certification of proper construction as approved, or will it be left to the CAG to undertake random checks and raise objections and strictures, which are simply brushed under the carpet, as has been happening over the years?
In January 2015, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat had told media that of the 73 strategic roads only 22 had been completed after so many years, and the 14 approved strategic rail-lines remain on paper. In March 2017, CAG pointed out that even roads that had been completed were not fit for use. The CAG report included: 61 projects (3,409.27 km) of 73 roads were allotted to Border Roads Organization (BRO), and 12 roads to CPWD, National Buildings Construction Corp (NBCC) and state public works departments; of 61 roads along LAC, 12 completed by 2012 and of balance 46, only seven completed by March 2016; only 22 roads completed till March 2016 despite expenditure of Rs 4,536 cr against estimated cost of Rs 4,644 cr for 61 roads; numerous instances of defective construction due unsuitable design or specifications, steep gradient, defective alignment, turning problems for vehicles, poor riding conditions, inadequate drainage facilities and non-connectivity or roads; additional expenditure of Rs 63.20 cr on account of corrective action, and; non-completion and faulty works have serious bearing on the operational capability of the Armed Forces.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying recently said, “China is firmly opposed to any country to have any military links with Taiwan. China is consistent and clear cut. The US and other countries fully recognize the sensitivity and the danger of this issue. They should prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related issues, thus avoiding harming of bilateral relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” This also indicated Indian efforts to sell submarine technology to other countries are being opposed by the Chinese. President Xi Jingping recently stressed reunification of Taiwan with mainland China and saying if need be, force will be used without hesitation. China has been always vocal about its ‘One China’ policy. But what about ‘One India’, which Xi and his government have been blatantly trampling? What about India’s sensitivities to POK; Chinese projects, CPEC and militarization of POK without reference to India?
An important reason why China can bully India is because 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. We could take a stand at Doklam because we had the communications to react there. However, this is hardly the case particularly in Arunachal Pradesh where our troops are sitting scores of kilometers from the LAC. The net result is that we have to lump what China says or does to us; our troops can only take a stand if they at the border and can quickly mobilize – surely we don’t intend opening up with artillery and air at first instance.
The above major weakness doesn’t appear to strike our policy makers despite China deploying state-of-the-art weapon systems against us and reports in foreign media that China has developed highly advanced weaponry and can very well engage in regional conflicts. Somehow our political hierarchy is of the view that China will not engage with conflict with us – a dangerous conclusion that cannot link capability with intentions which can change overnight. Sardar Patel had warned Pandit Nehru of “Chinese irredentism” way back in 1950. Nehru learnt his lesson the hard way, his despair oozing in his letter to US President Kennedy in 1962, extracts of which had said, “The Chinese threat as it has developed involves not merely the survival of India but the survival of free and independent governments in the whole of this sub-continent and in Asia. The domestic quarrels regarding small areas of territorial boundaries between the countries in this sub-continent or in Asia have no relevance whatever in the context of the developing Chinese invasion”. But what Nehru mentioned in this last sentence is not true anymore because the China-Pakistan collusive threat is real and expanding.
Speaking at the 71st Army Day parade on January 15, 2019, General Bipin Rawat mentioned that a new policy had been adopted on the border with China and the armies of the two countries told to maintain peace. The Modi-Xi informal summit notwithstanding, even before the Doklam standoff there was plenty camaraderie between the two armies, hand-to-hand exercises, confidence building measures and what not. Jayadeva Ranade, former R&AW officer, in his recent article ‘Beware of Chinese propaganda’ has warned of Chinese efforts to build lobbies of influence and mould public opinion in India since at least 2017; investing heavily in “hosting politicians, journalists, academics, representatives of think-tanks etc on all-expenses paid visits to China, buttressed by substantial financial incentives”, and immediately after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to India in December 2018, “articles recommending intensified contacts including recognition of Chinese degrees and establishment of Chinese Confucius Centres appeared in some Indian newspapers”. But India needs to discourage Confucius Institutes as, in addition to propaganda, “they will try and propagate China’s version on Sino-Indian conflicts, the border issue, the Tibet issue and the Dalai Lama”.
Our policy makers must acknowledge that the rapid expansion of China’s military power and its collusion with Pakistan is an expanding threat. Hopefully the need to rapidly improve our border infrastructure will be recognized.