The new Indian Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag is visiting the Eastern Command after undertaking a trip to the Ladakh area in the western part of the Sino-Indian border, where there have been repeated Chinese incursions. Suhag was also expected to make a trip to the forward bases in Arunachal Pradesh, depending on the weather conditions.
During the visit, Suhag is also expected to take stock of the progress in the establishment of the Army’s recently sanctioned Mountain Strike Corps (17 Corps), which is likely to be ready by 2018-19. Suhag, who was the Eastern Commander for two years prior to shifting to Army headquarters, played a major role in the formation of the new corps. Undertaken at a cost of 64,678 crore[t1] rupees ($10.7 billion), the corps will have 90,274 troops, of which 22 major and minor units were made ready in December 2013. According to an army official, the new corps will have “two high-altitude infantry divisions (59 Division at Panagarh and 72 Division at Pathankot) with their integral units, two independent infantry brigades, two armoured brigades and the like. It will include 30 new infantry battalions and two Para-Special Forces battalions.” While the new corps will be based in Panagarh, West Bengal, the force will be deployed from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, covering all the important trouble spots along the border. During his long tenure, Suhag is also reported to have served in a China-centric unit, the Special Frontier Force, which came up in the wake of the 1962 border war with China. Suhag is reported to have been the inspector general of the SFF before taking over as the Army vice chief.
All this suggests that the new army leadership is more focused on the urgent needs of the border areas. Even as there is a beefing up of capabilities on the border with new combat units, the biggest challenge is going to come from the poor state of border infrastructure. For instance, it reportedly takes 20 hours to drive a distance of 500 km (300 miles) from Guwahati to Tawang – a reflection of the severe condition of the road network in the region. The road density of Arunachal Pradesh is at a significantly low level of 18.65 km per 100 sq km., compared to the national average of 84 km per 100 sq km. Some of the major road projects in the region include making the trans-Arunachal highway from Nechipu to Hoj and Potin to Pangin two lanes, an upgrade of the Stillwell road in Arunachal Pradesh, and four more projects to widen roads including national highway 154 in Assam. The road network in Sikkim, another Indian state on the Sino-Indian border, is no different. The current road density is just 28.45 km per 100 sq km. There is only one road linking the capital Gangtok with the strategically significant Nathu La pass on the border, and one landslide-prone road with a width of 5 meters connecting the state with the rest of India.
While much has been written on the western and eastern sectors of the Sino-Indian border, the middle sector is no different. A recent visit by the author to some of the border areas in the middle sector illustrated the huge gaps in India’s infrastructure plans. It takes three hours to cover a short distance of 30-40 km in Himachal Pradesh, approaching the border areas of Kaurik, Shipkila and Sumdo. Along a stretch of 1200 km in the hills, there were roughly seven or eight places where the Border Roads Organization (BRO) appeared active – the few people working on the road appeared to be unskilled local workers. As long as the BRO has its hands tied by the state government and its local construction associates, including local contractors who have a vested interest in not meeting these deadlines on a timely basis, it is unlikely that the road conditions would improve. However, the net result of this is disastrous from a security perspective.
The railways too have faced a similar fate. The list of pending critical projects is striking. Pending lines in the eastern and northern sectors include the Murkongselek-Pasighat-Tezu-Parasuramkund-Rupai line (256 km), the Misamari-Tawang line (378 km), and the North Lakhimpur-Along-Silapathar line (248 km) in the northeast; and the Pathankot-Leh line (400 km), the Jammu-Akhnoor-Poonch line (223 km), and the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh line (430 km) in the northern sector. These would cover a distance of 3,016 km and cost around $9.2 billion.
So even as India is implementing some of the pending acquisition issues by clearing them on a priority basis and thus strengthening India’s security along the Sino-Indian border, the infrastructure problems could hinder India’s efforts. The reality may be that India cannot afford to wait for the railways or the BRO to complete these projects. Analyze the military order of battle for the region, and a huge discrepancy in favor of China becomes clear. The contrast between India and China is not only in terms of weapons and equipment, but also and more importantly in the physical infrastructure along the border. Today, the Chinese roads nearly reach the line of actual control (LAC) or in some cases go beyond, while on the other hand most Indian roads stop well before the Indian side of the LAC. China has also ensured connectivity in Aksai Chin by air. Thus, India is at least two decades behind China in terms of infrastructure and connectivity in the border region, putting India at a significant disadvantage. Should there be a scenario that calls for a deployment of forces to the border India could be handicapped, resulting in unfavorable outcomes, at least in the initial stages of conflict.
In conclusion, the driving point is that the BRO served a useful purpose in the initial decades after India’s independence, but infrastructure delays over the years call for a debate on the utility of this organization. The BRO’s acute staff shortage is a big impediment. It is losing people faster than it is able to recruit, which is a reflection of low morale. There has to be a new commanding authority under the Prime Minister’s Office that will address India’s infrastructure problems. Even as there are different ministries involved in the construction of the road and rail networks, there has to be a single authority to enable the quick completion of these projects.
Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. She served at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India from 2003 to 2007.