India’s capacity to counter challenges like Doklam is likely to get a significant boost in the next couple of years with stepped up pace of work on India-China border roads likely to result in several critical high altitude links being completed well before the 2020-21deadline.
Though the completion time-frame for most of the 61 roads –barring two or three-the Border Roads Organisation has been entrusted with, is around 2021, many will be ready earlier as enhanced financial powers given to the organisation recently begin to show results on the ground.
The construction of India-China roads has already seen a marked improvement in the past two-three years with formation cutting increasing from 107km in 2014-15 to 147 km in 2016-17. Similarly , progress on surfacing has increased from 174 km to 233 km in 2016-17 despite the heights and hard rock stretches.
The improved pace, given a limited working season of four to six months, is particularly noticeable on roads where the government accorded special dispensation considering the hostile work environment. As of now, against 3,400 km of 61 India-China roads under the BRO’s charge, just 270km of formation cutting remains to achieve 100% connectivity -meaning road laying can begin from both ends of the project.
“The cumulative effect of BRO executives being able to technically and administratively sanction works up to Rs 100 crore will manifest in a year or two as time and cost curtail ment are achieved,“ said a wellplaced source. Of the 61 roads, 27 have been completed and of the remaining 34 connectivity to 21has been established.
A sense of urgency has been injected into BRO projects as the need to close, or at least narrow the logistics gap, between Indian and Chinese forces along the border has been brought home by the serious threat posed by incidents like Doklam to India’s strategic interests. The proactive action of Indian troops in moving into territory disputed by China and Bhutan needed a strong and reliable supply line.
Another factor that worried the government and spurred construction of roads was reports of local populations migrating to the Chinese side in search of better economic activities. “This was the fallout of earlier policies of not building roads out of concern that they may end up aiding Chinese forces,“ said the source.
The construction of IndiaChina border roads came in for scathing criticism by the comptroller and auditor general of India in a report that noted that only 27 roads were ready . BRO hopes to change this picture with improved project execution capacity and better pace of construction in the past couple of years. The BRO’s task has been made easier with the latest decision to empower states to take a call on forest clearances within a certain threshold. Still, number of forest clearance cases and land acquisition cases are pending and non-allotment of stone quarries is also hurting the implementation of road projects critical to safeguarding India’s interests.