|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
“India will go ahead with construction of much required strategic roads and permanent integrated buildings along the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim as part of a critical infrastructure project worth Rs 250 billion, read media reports of 19 November 2018. The report went on to say the final blueprint envisages construction of 19 roads, 29 permanent integrated buildings and other critical infrastructure along Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal and Sikkim. It further states that construction of this critical infrastructure will be challenging task for the executing agency since the job also involves construction of two-metre wide roads in mountainous and rugged terrain, and that the decision to fast-track the construction of roads and other critical infrastructure on the Chinese border assumes significance as it is happening at a time when India is looking to fend off the dragon's threat on its north-eastern border.
The decision reportedly was approved by the High Level Empowered Committee (HLEC) headed by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. But this is yet to be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The CCS is also to consider and approve other border-related projects in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. There are to be 18 coastal border outposts in Gujarat to strengthen the vigil along the coastline. Besides, the executing agency is also to take up fencing and road construction work along the Indo-Bangladesh border in Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. As for border infrastructure to be resolved in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, the news report says “some issues involving forest and wildlife clearance and land acquisition have been resolved”, implying much more of this is yet to be resolved. In the wake of oncoming elections, political parties ruling at the Centre and State level have been spending crores propagating their achievements since the last general elections, but there is total silence about what has been achieved in terms of border infrastructure. The reason is quite apparent; precious little has happened and whatever has come up is of poor quality, as indicated by ground reports. What is meant by saying “at a time when India is looking to fend off the dragon's threat on its north-eastern border” when we are still planning on paper? What is the time schedule of completion once the CCS approves the blue print – given that construction in border areas is limited to few months due difficult terrain and weather?
In March 2017, CAG had pointed out that of the 61 projects (3,409.27 km) of 73 roads allotted to Border Roads Organization (BRO) and 12 roads to CPWD, National Buildings Construction Corp (NBCC) and state public works departments: BRO completed only 12 roads by 2012 and of balance 46, only seven completed by March 2016; overall 22 roads were completed up to March 2016 despite incurring an expenditure of Rs 4,536 crore against estimated cost of Rs 4,644 crore for 61 roads; numerous instances of defective construction of roads on account of unsuitable design or specifications, steep gradient, defective alignment, turning problems for vehicles, improper contract management, poor riding conditions, inadequate drainage facilities and non-connectivity or roads; aside from delays, additional expenditure of Rs 63.20 crore on account of corrective action, and; non-completion and faulty specifications of works have a serious bearing on the operational capability of the Armed Forces. Feedback from forward areas is that surfacing of new roads gets skewed with just one winter and sides of roads cave in every few metres due lack of revetments. In August 2017, MoD approved greater delegation of administrative and financial powers to BRO for faster execution of projects: CE can accord administrative approval up to Rs 50 crore, ADGBR up to Rs 75 crore and DGBR up to Rs 100 crore; CE can accept bids for contracts up to Rs 100 crore and ADGBR up to Rs 300 core; CE can outsource consultancy services up to Rs 2 crore, ADGBR Rs 5 crore and DGBR beyond, and; BRO to adopt EPC (engineering, procurement, construction) mode of execution, engaging big construction companies for road projects on turnkey basis. All this was to hasten development of border infrastructure but not much acceleration has happened on ground. Actually, the whole concept of making the MHA responsible for development of border infrastructure is skewed, especially where the executing agency, BRO, is directly under MoD.
MoD, charged with external defence must be responsible for development of border infrastructure, especially in sensitive regions of Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Sikkim. Looking at the magnitude of the task, clear division of development of roads must be made between the private sector and the BRO. Priorities of the MoD and MHA may not be the same in face of external threat because MHA is charged with perhaps more than what it can bite. For example, of the abovementioned projects slated to be approved by the CCS, MHA will is to address our borders with multiple counties as well as the coastline. There are obvious political influences and considerations that come into play, as indicated from the mention of 18 coastal border outposts to be constructed in Gujarat – is it because Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to this state? Isn’t our entire west and east coast under threat, especially with reports of arms smuggling and Rohingya influx by sea along the east coast? Has MHA included holistic requirement of coastal border posts or is it limited to appease the Prime Minister? It also needs to be clarified what the ‘29 permanent integrated buildings’ are and for who are these meant? A realistic assessment of state of preparedness of our border infrastructure must be made and timelines drawn to fast track development incorporating private players for road infrastructure, complimenting capabilities of BRO. LAC should be under MoD and so should MoD directly control border infrastructure development along the LAC. Not making these changes would be detrimental to our defence.