India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh was in the Ladakh region earlier in the week to inaugurate 63 bridges spread across six states and two union territories. This was the area where Indian and Chinese forces clashed last year and where they are still eyeball-to-eyeball. New Delhi’s disappointment that several rounds of negotiations with China have not helped in easing tension across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the area means that India is continuing to build up its infrastructure.
Of the 63 bridges, 11 are in the Ladakh region and four in the Jammu and Kashmir territory. Other Indian states all along the LAC are getting the rest: three in Himachal Pradesh, six in Uttarakhand, eight in Sikkim, one each in Nagaland and Manipur, and 29 in Arunachal Pradesh. These bridges were built at a total cost of 2.4 billion Indian rupees ($32.2 million). The defense minister specifically inaugurated a 50-meter long bridge on the Leh-Loma Road, which “will ensure unhindered movement of heavy weapon systems, including guns, tanks and other specialized equipment.”
The Leh-Loma Road connects Leh to places like Chumathang, Hanley, and Tso Morori Lake, all of which are considered significant to maintain access to forward areas in Eastern Ladakh. Leh is not only the capital of the territory but also the central distribution hub and an important command and staging area for Indian forces in the region.
Inaugurating the other 62 bridges virtually, Singh noted that these “bridges will play a crucial role in strengthening security as well as promoting the economic development of the respective states through improved connectivity.” The director general of India’s Border Roads Organization (BRO) pointedly noted not only the progress achieved despite the pandemic but also its utility for “speedy mobilization” of the military “in strategically important sectors.” The Ministry of Defense press release noted that the BRO has broken its previous record, set last year, of launching 44 bridges. When added to 12 roads that were launched earlier in June, the BRO has completed 75 projects so far in 2021.
The 63 bridges, spread across the Sino-Indian border, can be a significant boost to India’s connectivity in the border areas, but these bridges cannot yet change the balance between India and China in terms of physical infrastructure.
On the Sino-Indian border, there is an existing military imbalance in favor of China in terms of physical border infrastructure. For about two decades, China has been making massive progress in infrastructural and connectivity projects across the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Sino-Indian border areas. China has also undertaken significant restoration of the Karakoram Highway, improving connectivity between China and Pakistan.
On the other hand, India had neglected the development of its border areas as part of a naïve but misguided strategy for decades. In 2010, then-Defense Minister A.K. Antony, while speaking at a BRO meeting, said that the Indian approach earlier was that “inaccessibility in far-flung areas would be a deterrent to the enemies.” India had deliberately neglected the infrastructure on its side of the LAC as a deterrent against Chinese aggression. Antony recognized that this was an “incorrect approach” and stated that there is a “turnaround in government policy” to build as well as upgrade roads, bridges, and tunnels in the border areas.
Despite changing this foolish policy, building connectivity across the border areas has not been smooth sailing. Most of the roads leading up to the border, to places like Gangtok and Tawang and beyond, are single-lane roads. Thus, the BRO had to not just develop new roads but strengthen the capacity of existing roads and double-lane them. Road construction in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh is in a similar state. The data provided by the Indian government in Parliament reveals that one-third to half of the road projects are behind schedule. Poorly coordinated inter-ministerial clearances, the scarcity of raw materials for construction, shortage of officers, poor quality of labor, as well as incompetent contractors have all played a role in delaying the pace of construction.
Given the significant deficiencies on the Indian side of the border, the Modi government has rightly emphasized accelerating the pace of infrastructure development. In May 2020, the Modi government implemented the Shekatkar Committee recommendations regarding border infrastructure, which included “introduction of modern construction plants, equipment and machinery has been implemented by delegating enhanced procurement powers from Rs 7.5 crore [75 million rupees] (US $1 million) to Rs 100 crore [1 billion rupees] (US $13 million) to BRO, for domestic and foreign procurements.”
A Ministry of Defense press release said that the BRO has recently received a Hot-Mix Plant 20/30 TPH for speedier laying of roads, remote operated hydraulic Rock Drills DC-400 R for hard rock cutting, and a range of F-90 series of self-propelled snow-cutters/blowers for speedier snow clearance. Additionally, they are also using blasting technology for precision blasting, Geo-Textiles for soil stabilization, cementitious base for pavements, and plastic-coated aggregates for surfacing for speedy pace of construction. This shows how under-equipped the BRO has been until now in undertaking these construction projects in an extremely difficult terrain. There has also been more effective delegation of financial and administrative powers, making the field officers a lot more capable of taking quick decisions. Land acquisition and other inter-ministerial clearances, which had been significant delaying factors, have now been made part of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) approval process, which could ease the process to a large extent.
A strengthened border infrastructure serves multiple purposes, from stepping up India’s Act East engagement and the broader social and economic development of India’s border areas to aiding the Indian military to undertake rapid deployment on the Sino-Indian border. Even if India and China were to have a post-Galwan military disengagement, this is not going to be the last time that the Indian armed forces will be required to respond to China in the border areas. India’s accelerated pace of infrastructure and connectivity development will make it that much easier on the forces and could change the outcome in India’s favor even in the initial stages of a conflict.