The recent announcement by the government to fast track the railway projects in the Himalayan border areas has refocused attention on the strategic infrastructure requirements of the India’s Himalayan frontier. For centuries, the Himalayas remained a landscape of exchange of many things including goods, people, and the philosophy of Buddhism. The Chinese on their part, extended the southern flank of the silk route into the Himalayas all the way from Ladakh and Himachal to Nathu La, located in the eastern Himalayas. Unfortunately, the post-colonial era heralded an acrimonious beginning with the closure of the famous Leh-Yarkand route, China’s annexation of Tibet and India launching its Forward policy in response to the border tensions. This resulting war of 1962 left India humiliated and significantly under prepared to defend these frontiers.
To date, the entire expanse of the Himalayan frontier bordering China remains unacceptable to Beijing with the term Line of Actual Control (LAC) being given to this de-facto border. Despite a gradual de-escalation in tensions and multiple Confidence Building Measures in place to manage the border peacefully, the LAC continues to remain an irritant in bilateral ties.
Over these years, China has strengthened its Himalayan frontier with India with a number of infrastructure projects including the much acclaimed Qinghai-Tibet railway line which got extended to Xigaze in 2014 and, in coming years is expected to connect Gyirong on the Tibet-Nepal border. Additionally, China is supporting the growing securitisation of Gilgit-Baltistan and planning a railway line connecting Islamabad with Kashgar as a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While China’s initiatives to bolster connectivity with Pakistan and the rapid infrastructure drive in Tibet are categorised under the terminology of economic projects, they are nonetheless a cause of worry for India given the security implications for Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh.
In contrast, India’s strategic infrastructure in Himalayan states seems to comprise a number of proposed disjointed rail tracks connecting specific spots in the Himalayas which can be observed from the approvals the ministry of defence gave for strategic railway projects in 2011. The proposed lines in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh clearly reveal this disconnect.
Thus, it is about time that India sets out its ambitions for linking the entire Himalayan frontier: a rail corridor running from Leh in Jammu & Kashmir to Hawai in Arunachal Pradesh cutting across Nepal and Bhutan. This ambition can be a mix of both its military strategy and regional cooperation.
The Himalayan rail-expressway would be a two track railway line and a four lane expressway running parallel at altitudes ranging from 4,000-10,000 feet. It would require innovations for the cold desert of Ladakh and Spiti. Also, it is expected that at any given point rail tracks and the expressway would be half to a kilometer away from each other.
The Ladakh-Kaza stretch could incorporate parts of the proposed Bilaspur-Leh railway and would commence at the terminal of the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh line which has also been proposed by the government. The rail-expressway from Kaza could then follow the Sangla-Rudraprayag-Jauljibi route along the Nepal border. On this part of the route, it would connect with other proposed strategic rail-lines at Rudraprayag with the Rishikesh-Chamoli line, at Bageshwar and Jauljibi with the lines from Tanakpur. From Jauljibi, the rail-expressway could cut into Nepal passing through Pokhara and Kathmandu and re-emerging in India by connecting with Gangtok in Sikkim.
Thereafter, the route could pass into Bhutan linking Thimpu with Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, the government’s proposed terminal of the railway line from Missamari. The Himalayan rail-expressway could then continue to Dapajiro and Aalo finally terminating at Hawai in eastern Arunachal. At Aalo, it would meet up with another of government’s proposed strategic line from Silapathar.
Firstly, India faces significant topographical disadvantages vis-à-vis China. The Tibetan plateau offers a relatively favourable terrain as compared to the steep Himalayan gradient on the Indian side. Moreover, the Himalayan range compromising young fold mountains is more prone to seismic instabilities than the Tibetan plateau.
Technology remains another impediment as the Indian railway is in midst of a massive overhaul and matching the technical expertise of Chinese shall take considerable time. The Chinese, on the other hand have successfully demonstrated their superior technical skills by laying down the Tibet rail project, which cost a staggering $4.2 billion and has a portion of track running even on the permafrost terrain.
Another challenge will be the choice of gauge. India has largely moved to broad gauge with a few smaller gauge tracks for its mountain railways. The latter are thus light, but slow. The already proposed strategic lines are all expected to be broad gauge. However, the Himalayan corridor will need to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck, and hence the specialists may assess various options including standard gauge which is popular world over.
Lack of political will has dictated India’s border infrastructure policy in these years. It has been over five decades since the Sino-Indian war took place, but there has been no talk of an integrated strategic corridor traversing the Himalayas. It took as late as 2011 for the defence ministry to give an approval to the strategic border lines, work on which is yet to gain pace. In a recent interview, Railways minister Suresh Prabhu has stated about government’s plans to extend rail connectivity to Nepal and Bhutan, while terming these projects as priorities. The road network remains inadequate and vulnerable to natural disasters.
The proposed Chinese lines next to Nepal border and Chinese claims over Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau (located near Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction and overlooking Siliguri Corridor) are immediate concerns for New Delhi. Since the proposed corridor is expected to traverse Nepal and Bhutan, its success depends on how India negotiates with her Himalayan neighbours. Thus, packaging the corridor largely as a regional cooperation package (in which India is ready to finance these projects without passing on the burden) would be in everyone’s best interest. It could immediately be dovetailed in the Bangladesh Bhutan India Nepal (BBIN) regional connectivity project. Also, lines from Gorakhpur to Gyirong via Kathmandu and one from Jalpaiguri to Nathula via Gangtok could significantly allay Chinese fears and enhance trade between these nations.
A section of Chinese strategists is in favour of such projects and even suggested the possibility of extending the proposed Xigaze-Gyirong line southwards to India, thereby inducting it in the new Silk Road initiative. Given the rapid inroads, Chinese Silk Road is already making across the length and breadth of Eurasian landmass, India cannot escape its economic footprint. This notwithstanding, the nation also needs to invest massively in its border infrastructure to project its strategic rebalancing capabilities, which can keep Beijing’s territorial ambitions at bay. In future, the same proposed rail-road network could also become an integral supply chain between the two Asian giants and their Himalayan neighbours.
Joshi is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University and a researcher on South Asia’s Strategic issues. Himanshu Dube is Director at IDCG Private limited. Views are personal