India's border roads programme is mired in bullshit!
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Sept 12
Fifty years ago, on September 20, 1962, the first shots were fired at Thag La. Yesterday, the army chief, General Bikram Singh, vowed that there would never be a replay of 1962, when an ill-prepared Indian Army was militarily humiliated in a carefully choreographed offensive by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Those brave words need to be backed by preparation. In terms of military build-up along the McMahon Line, the Indian army, despite recent efforts, is far from matching its opponent.
China’s biggest advantage is that of the aggressor: since it can decide when to strike and where, it could quickly concentrate some 10-12 divisions, about 200,000 combat soldiers, on a narrow front defended by just a couple of Indian brigades, moving swiftly over a handsome new transport network. This includes the 1,956-km Qinghai-Tibet railway, inaugurated in 2006, which allows troops to be moved swiftly from China into Tibet, and another five rail lines being built from Lhasa to the border. These are backed up with superb four-lane highways. The Indian Army has as many men in the sector, but they are strung out along a frontline hundreds of kilometres long, with forward positions many days’ walk from the road heads. Even if India learns about an ongoing Chinese build-up, say from improved satellite surveillance or from its sources in Tibet, it would take so long – three weeks – to reposition its troops at the threatened point that the battle would be over by then.
India’s poor border infrastructure also limits the utility of the formations that New Delhi is raising — a mountain strike corps of 40,000 soldiers and an armoured brigade with about 200 tanks. Until India can build better roads and railways that would allow the army to reposition and concentrate more quickly, its generals have little choice but to continue deploying increasing numbers of troops in inhospitable, high-altitude, forward pickets, hoping that they can block a PLA offensive till reinforcements are moved up. This is hardly a happy situation.
The obvious solution is to quickly build better roads and railways that could allow the Indian army to match the PLA’s deployment timings (one week). Far-sighted policy planners, such as former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, pushed a range of schemes to build strategic roads in border areas through agencies like the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Implementation, however, has been slow. Problems with land acquisition and clearances; the rugged terrain and harsh climate; and the need for more helicopters to move men and material are the government’s stated reasons for the slow progress. It is time the Centre and states co-ordinated their efforts to create a suitable road network. This is not just a military imperative, but it would also do much to bring economic development and jobs to the people of India’s far-flung border regions.