BORDER LOGISTICSAs China builds on border, policy potholes block IndiaIndia’s building of roads along the China border has been tardy. In seven years, only 16 of the planned 73 projects have seen fruition. Slow clearances and tough terrain are the challenges. China, meanwhile, has built a formidable road and rail network. By Ajay Banerjee
JAMMU & KASHMIR
INERTIAin inter-ministerial coordination, coupled with a sluggish pace of construction and challenges posed by the formidable Himalayas, is critically hindering India’s strategic plans to build a road and rail network along the 4,057-km frontier with China.
A majority of the strategic road projects are several years behind schedule, making a mockery of the 2012 deadline set by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the topmost security-related decision-making body at the Centre headed by the Prime Minister.
The realities of the lackadaisical approach cropped up at a meeting on May 20 this year. Defence Minister AK Antony was reportedly aghast at the slow progress on the 73 projects classified as India-China Border Roads (ICBR). He asked the road constructing authority, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), to expedite the work.
It was on June 29, 2006, that the CCS had directed the BRO to complete the task in six years (by 2012).
The BRO’s record provided to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) says as of March 31, 2013, only 16 of the planned 73 roads had been completed on the China frontier. Out of these, six had a length of less than 10 km, which means they are no more than a local connection. After spending huge sums, only 15 per cent of the work has been completed in seven years. In other words, only 527 km of roads, out of the mandated 3,505 km, have been completed.
So far, a sum of Rs 5,889 crore has been spent on the 73 roads, which includes formation works, labour cost, etc. Now, a more realistic deadline has been set for 2016 and “beyond-2016”.
The CCS decision was a far-reaching strategic policy as it approved the construction of a road network along the entire India-China frontier. It was a reversal of an unwritten code under which the Government of India had deliberately did not built a road network in the Himalayas, fearing a repeat of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. New Delhi feared that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, which is much bigger than the Indian Army, could use India’s own road network to rapidly advance down the Himalayas.
Stuck in time
Forest and wildlife conservation laws in India are a serious hurdle. With the Supreme Court getting strict on violators, the pace of work is sluggish, with clearances pending for more than six years in some cases. In the Himalayas, the peaks have trees and a thriving wildlife. The ecology of the mountains and the rivers originating there affects the lives of billions of people living in the plains. Forest and wildlife clearances therefore turn out to be the biggest stumbling block when the BRO seeks to start a road project.
Clearance under the Environment Protection Act is not a big issue for border roads, but forest and wildlife clearances are required under the Forest Conservation Rules and Wildlife Protection Act, respectively. These are part of the Forest Conservation Rules, 2003, that prescribe timelines for clearance of proposals at the state and Central government levels. It takes 90 days to process at the state government level and 60 days at the Central level for border roads along the Indo-China border and projects of national security importance.
However, in reality, the timelines are almost never followed. A study within the MoD has found that the average time taken is two-three years, and in certain cases even more than that.
Border Roads Organisation personnel doing maintenance work in Ladakh.
The horizontal spread of the Himalayas is a global biodiversity hot spot and hence one rule cannot apply to all parts of the mountain range. The concerns of states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand on trees getting cut or the wildlife being affected would not apply to Ladakh. However, in the militarily sensitive eastern Ladakh region, vast areas have been designated as “cold desert wildlife sanctuaries”, holding back roads to key areas which are perpetually in focus along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. The LAC is the nomenclature for parts of the border of which the alignment is accepted by neither India nor China.
“Not a blade of grass grows there and animal life is non-existent,” says a senior Army officer while pointing out at the dichotomy of such a ban. This flat plateau saw major battles in the 1962 war. On a similar terrain and ecology on its side, China has gone ahead with providing all-weather connectivity.
In Uttarakhand, there is a ban on stone quarrying in the Ganga catchment area.
A way around
The MoD and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) are now working to bring about a legal provision that will speed up road construction by exempting border infrastructure from all relevant Acts of forest and wildlife. The first tentative draft of the Strategic Border Infrastructure (Development) Bill, 2011, with comments of the stakeholders concerned, was sent by the MHA to the Ministry of Law and Justice, which brought out the second working draft of the Bill. “The draft has been examined by the MHA and it is being fine-tuned,” the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence said in its report in the House on April 29, adding “the delay in forest and wildlife clearances has been an impediment”.
The two ministries want roads within 50 km of the international border and the LAC to be exempted from controls. There can be no blanket permission or ban on infrastructure construction. “Each project can have an independent biodiversity impact assessment committee of experts which will submit a report to the National Board of Wildlife,” says an official dealing with the issue. “This route was adopted in eastern Ladakh and approvals have started flowing in,” he adds.
The MoD filed an interlocutory application in the Supreme Court, seeking exemption of strategic roads from the ambit of wildlife and forest applications, but it was turned down on September 23, 2011, citing “measures taken by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to expedite the clearance being adequate”.
Efforts made by the ministry to fast-track clearances have yielded some gains. The MoD is now taking up the matter with nodal officers of the BRO at the project levels as well as the MoEF and state forest departments to ensure regular liaison to expedite clearances.
Out of the 99 cases of clearances for the ICBR projects, approvals have been accorded in 79 cases, but the real work of cutting through rock and at heights which have deep valleys and no access points remain.
Slow tunnel work
The MoD and Army want a total of 17 tunnels at various locations in the Himalayas. The MoD had suggested seven tunnels, for which detailed project reports (DPRs) are under way to examine feasibility. These include one under the 18,300-ft Khardung La, leading to the Siachen Glacier and the sensitive Daulat Beg Oldie in northern Ladakh. In addition to these, the Army has endorsed the construction of 11 more tunnels in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and J&K, which could be taken up subsequently. So far, only one major tunnel is under construction to cut under the Rohtang Pass on the Manali-Sarchu-Leh road, for which the deadline is February 2015. The plans for tunnels are at various stages of approval so that the construction can commence expeditiously. The BRO and other agencies have little expertise in high-altitude tunnelling.
On the Chinese side, the Tibetan plateau is almost treeless. It is a cold desert and, unlike the Himalayas which have high peaks, it is flat, allowing easier movement of material and equipment. The Himalayas are jagged, high and inaccessible with narrow valleys. The Tibetan plateau — at an altitude of 11,000 feet — is cold but gets little or no snowfall. In contrast, the Himalayan passes like the Zoji La, Rohtang and Baralacha in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal receive huge amounts of snow, restricting road access for months and making in difficult to move equipment. Rather, the BRO spends weeks each year just to clear snow from these passes. In the East, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim face the same problems. Also, snow in the Himalayas allows a short working window during the summer months and the remaining time is lost due to weather and shortage of labour.
The Defence Ministry has admitted China has a “geographical advantage” along the border. A report of the parliamentary committee in August 2011 quoted the Defence Secretary as saying: “China has been building its infrastructure. They have the advantage of topography because they have the Tibetan Plateau whereas from our side, the terrain and geography are more difficult”.
Several spots in the Himalayas can only be reached on foot. Sending material is possible only through helicopters, but the IAF capability of Mi-17 helicopters is stretched. The MoD had toyed with the idea of hiring choppers, but it did not work. As per estimates, the BRO needs an annual lift capability of 3,500 tonne. Each Mi-17 can take up to 2-3 tonnes, depending on the altitude.