The most common theory about the recent tensions between Chinese and Indian soldiers in Ladakh is that they were connected to New Delhi’s construction of a road on its side of the contested territory. Whether that is true or not, the recent bloody events are a good moment to look back at India’s infrastructure buildup in Ladakh over recent years.
One angle – while surely not an exhaustive one – is to look at the reports published by the Standing Committee on Defense, New Delhi’s parliamentary committee providing oversight of policies and decisions made by the Ministry of Defense (readers can find them here). One of the main advantages of stopping to ponder the committee’s reports is the openness of data and openness of criticism displayed therein.
It is notable that India, being a democracy, makes so much information on its internal matters available on the internet, even to foreign readers. Still, when it comes to sensitive matters – like security – much of the data is not available for obvious reasons. This resource does not describe specific roads in detail, but is useful in looking at the problem from a budgetary and administrative perspective: What do the committee’s members, being lawmakers, officers and external experts, think of these processes?
Second, the reports are commendable as they are not posters or colorful brochures to praise the government’s work. On the contrary, they are mostly lists of undertakings to complete, tasks that have not been achieved, suggestions, demands for more resources, and usually long accounts full of harsh criticism and bitter complaints. Seen this way, they are a rare resource: an official source that mostly criticizes the government (similar to audits). Their disadvantage, however, is that their publishing is patchy.
What do these reports tell us? In a nutshell, they tell us that India’s buildup of strategic infrastructure in border areas – roads, railway, bridges, and tunnels – is mostly behind schedule.
In 2006, the government had envisaged the construction or improvement of 73 roads next to the disputed border with China. Most of these – 61 roads, totaling 3,417 kilometers – were to be built by a government agency: the Border Roads Organization (BRO). The deadline was 2012, and yet as of 2011 the task was just 43 percent completed (as per a report published that year). As of 2020, the committee claims, 12 roads in this category were to be completed, amounting to less than 200 kilometers of work pending.
It needs to be stressed, however, that connections in this category – the Indo-China Border Roads, as the government calls them – are the priority roads. These form only a part of a larger infrastructure enhancement along the border areas with China. In another category – “roads in difficult areas” – the pending work in the western sector of the border alone is over 900 km long in Jammu and Kashmir and over 1,400 kilometers in Ladakh as of official data for March 2020.
Some of the recurring problems behind these circumstances are work in challenging environmental conditions; shortage of manpower, equipment, and funds (and their inadequate spending); administrative limits; and a slow pace in obtaining clearances for land acquisition and constructing in wildlife territories. This is happening not only in Ladakh.
As for inadequate funds, the 41st report (“Demands for Grants, 2018-2019”), pointed out that in the 2018 budget the sum allocated for the construction of strategic roads near China was too small by approximately 9 billion rupees ($136 million). A heavy sum by itself and by standards of Indian life, it is admittedly not stunning in the context of the entire Indian defense budget. Such costs as funding the incessant presence of Indian armed forces on high altitudes or acquiring foreign weapon platforms are actually many times higher (as per Rahul Bedi, even a single day of keeping the forces on the Siachen glacier costs much more). In other words, the Indian government possibly can find funds to match the demand for strategic infrastructure (or rather, what it considers to be adequate infrastructure). One can assume the current tensions may push it to do so in the next budget.
The reports also make it clear that a large part of the problem is not only a lack of funds but the underutilization of the existing funds. As report 50 (“Provision of all weather road connectivity under Border Roads Organisation…”) points out, BRO spent nearly all of the funds allocated to it for border construction between 2009 and 2016. When it comes to “expenditure on procurement of equipment, plants and vehicles,” however, it spent less than 50 percent of its budget. This also translates to serious shortages of equipment. Specific reasons for this were not given publicly, but this does suggest a very serious scale of mismanagement.
The reports also declare that a large part of the delays comes from India’s own administrative procedures, such as expenditure restrictions mandated by the Ministry of Finances, severe delays in issuing of clearances, the limited power of the BRO and its project engineers, and others. The picture painted by the reports is of the road construction being bogged down nearly as much by extreme climate conditions as administrative hurdles: Steep slopes of various administrative levels to be climbed, avalanches of permits, pitfalls of the building agency’s weak power.
Some things are also changing and have reportedly improved. As of 2019, project chief engineers were given the power to decide about greater spending (from 100 million to half a billion rupees). At least as early as in 2013 the Standing Committee also recommended outsourcing some of the infrastructure work to large private companies “who have sufficient manpower and machinery to carry out quick and reliable disposal of work.” This has not happened to date, but the recent changes are to make it possible (as per the 2020 report).
It may be added here that the land acquisition issue probably has little impact on the region of the latest tensions: Ladakh. The territory occupied by China in Ladakh, Aksai Chin, is uninhabited, and so are parts of the Indian-controlled land adjacent to it. Reports show that most of the pending land acquisition cases pertain to the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and a much smaller number of them to Ladakh.
This is surely not enough to fully understand the background of the recent clashes. Hindsight is both a benefit and a curse. It is easy to look back at past reports now and point out that the uncompleted infrastructure work put India at a disadvantage with regard to China. This, however, was well known before and does not necessarily explain the occurrence of the 2020 tensions.
As mentioned at the beginning, the strongest theory about the current tensions we have now is that the Chinese advances were a reaction to the completion of the Leh-Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie strategic road in Ladakh by BRO. The work on the road was finished in 2019, however, so this would still not explain the push’s timing. At any rate, the road indeed does not appear in the last few years of reports as one of the pending works or important challenges pointed out by the commission (some of the roads leading through or to Ladakh do, such as the Nemo-Padum-Darcha road). By this theory, therefore, the Chinese actions focused on the territory where a part of the infrastructure was completed – precisely because it was completed, contrary to some other parts. At the same time, and from a larger geographical perspective, the delays in infrastructure in other regions mean that Indian forces cannot react and move swiftly across the disputed territories as they should, a factor that weakened them not just during the current tensions but over the last years and decades.