Last month’s earthquake, for instance, has once again sparked a debate on the necessity of having alternate roads between the plains of North Bengal and the border with China in the high Himalayas in Sikkim. (The Indian Army has for years been dependent on the lone and fragile North Sikkim Highway for its movement to and from the border).
Some posts in this area are at altitudes ranging between 16,000 to 19,000 feet, and the fast-approaching winter means the supply window is closing rapidly. By late October or early November, heavy snow will make vehicular passage extremely difficult.
Given the fickle weather in the mountains, the air effort in these areas is completely dependent on unpredictable weather patterns. Moreover, there are no airfields in these high mountains, only helipads, meaning fixed wing aircraft are of no use. But helicopters have their own limitations, meaning good all-weather roads are a must (although this hasn’t prevented local disputes and interest groups preventing at least two alternate routes from being completed).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
An alternate highway running west of the Teesta River, which is less vulnerable to landslides and erosion, is what the Army has long been demanding, but environmentalists have objected to this, saying it would run through fragile forests. The problem with this argument is that the proposed road would actually only skirt the forest area. And, as senior army officers have time and again pointed out, these forces are actually the best protectors of vulnerable forests areas since it is in their interests to preserve the green cover to prevent erosion.
Regardless, these local hurdles have made the two frontline mountain brigades stationed on the border with China in North Sikkim vulnerable. The ‘Finger Area’ in North Sikkim, which witnessed border standoffs between Indian and Chinese troops in 2009, is strategically important from India’s point of view since it’s the only area where Indian troops are deployed ahead of the Himalayan range, and therefore in an advantageous position vis-à-vis the Chinese.
But the top brass in the Indian military, aware of these ground realities along the long sensitive China border, also see the natural disasters as opportunities to test the resilience of Indian troops and fine tune the logistics and supply chains. If the cloudburst in Ladakh brought about a realization that alternate air fields are needed to sustain troop deployments in the high altitude area, the Sikkim earthquake has forced the Indian government to speed up border road development plans.
So, will the government respond? There are some encouraging signs it will. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—who visited Sikkim within 10 days of the earthquake—has directed the high-level China Study Group to review and re-prioritize projects along the high Himalayas. Within a month, an ambitious border roads development programme that envisages construction of 75 strategically important roads in the border areas stretching over 4,000 kilometres from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to Ladakh in the north-west, is likely to be tweaked and fine-tuned.
While these roads will take some time to complete, the Indian Armed Forces will at least feel assured that their needs are being given the importance that they deserve. Unfortunately, it has taken two natural disasters to make this clear.
Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7