2018: With an eye on assertive China, India begins its big Infra push in North East

New Delhi | Updated: Dec 29, 2018 10:29 AM

With serviceable period of around 120 years and billed as India's longest railroad bridge, Assam's Bogibeel Bridge was opened to traffic earlier this week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Bogibeel Bridge (PTI Photo)

By Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia

The Bogibeel Bridge, which was a part of the Assam Accord and sanctioned in 1997-98, is expected to play a significant role in the troop’s movement along the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. With serviceable period of around 120 years and billed as India’s longest railroad bridge, Assam’s Bogibeel Bridge was opened to traffic earlier this week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The five-kilometre structure spans the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra River. The Bridge is of strategic importance for India and for the armed forces.

On 26 December PM Modi inaugurated the 4.94km-long Bogibeel Bridge India’s longest rail-cum-road bridge, connecting Dibrugarh in Assam with Dhemaji in Arunachal Pradesh. The long overdue impetus to connectivity and  infrastructure development apparently is a reality now with the Prime Minister announcing an outlay of 70,000 crores to build over 5,500 Km of national highways in the North Eastern (NE) region and lay 15 new railway lines.

The NE region is the most underdeveloped region with little or no infrastructure and connectivity. The strategically important region is the bridge to South East Asia and shares India’s land borders with five out of the seven countries including the disputed borders with China.

The NE region lies on the wrong side of the narrow Siliguri corridor and comprises of eight and half states and nearly 5 cr people supported by a single road axis prone to disruptions. The isolation and neglect in mainstreaming the people mainly due to lack of connectivity and infrastructure has contributed to the various insurgencies, which fortunately are  mostly well managed with subcritical violence levels now. There is an imperative to ensure peace, stability and development in the region by providing the people the much needed connectivity to ensure the benefits of education, health care and economic growth. This will also give a push to tourism as the NE is by far one of the most scenic and serene places in India. At the strategic level the 3488 km long India- China border remains the longest though most peaceful disputed border in the world, with the last shot in anger fired in October of 1975. However, the disputed border does remain a potential driver for conflict and given the emerging geostrategic construct with China asserting itself as a global power, it is an imperative that India  build capabilities and enhance capacities , to protect its interests in all domains especially so along the disputed border.

China has gainfully applied its energy and ample resources to create a world class, state of the art, multi-dimension infrastructure in Tibet . This includes a vast road and rail network, airfields, oil pipelines, logistic installations, and warehousing. The infrastructure has helped China integrate Tibet, settle its Han majority, thus changing the demographic pattern in this remote and generally hostile region and more importantly enhanced the military might along the Sino – Indian borders.  China has constructed over 60,000 kms of road, 9 Air Strips besides the railway line of 1956 km length to Lhasa, which is under extension to Nepal and Yatung close to Sikkim and the Doklam standoff site. On the other hand as a misplaced strategy India shied away from constructing roads along the India-China Border. In 2010, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said, “Earlier the thinking was that inaccessibility in far-flung areas would be a deterrent to the enemies.” He acknowledged that this was an “incorrect approach” and stated that the government has decided to upgrade roads, tunnels and airfields in the border areas.  The China Study Group in 2005 approved 73 roads to be constructed along the borders and to be completed by 2012. Out of this, 27 roads have been completed while the remaining will be completed by December 2022.

While the Defence Ministry is building 46 roads, 27 are being constructed by the Ministry of Home Affairs. This is obviously too little too late. The strategic roads envisaged in 2005 are still a work in progress whereas the need and demand for more roads has grown exponentially both for defence and development requirements. It has been over an year since India and China ended the 73-day stand off  at Doklam. For all the focus on Sino-Indian relations, and the peaceful resolution of the crisis it should be noted that, Doklam is one of the few  exceptions where the Indian military has an advantage over China’s PLA because of its better road connectivity. The road to Doka La, the Indian military’s position dominating Doklam and providing the advantage was constructed as an operational track during my tenure as a corps commander in 2011, despite the non grant of environmental clearances and other hurdles. Without the road to Doka La things may have panned out differently, disadvantaging India. It is time the government takes immediate and urgent measures to give additional impetus to  build the requisite infrastructure to address the security needs as also facilitate mainstreaming of the border people and ensure development of the region.

The government should amend the land acquisition bill 2014 to exclude 100 kms along our Northern Borders and 50 kms along our Western borders, required for defence needs ie national security. There is also a need to evolve an integrated infrastructure development plan where in the NHAI is responsible for constructing the main arteries, a revamped Border Road Organisation mandated to construct the feeder roads and the army to ensure last mile connectivity through its integral resources of operational works. In addition to the plan the government should constitute a National Infrastructure Development Board under the Niti Aayog comprising of all relevant ministries including the representatives from the Army and Indian Air Force, fully empowered and accountable to execute and monitor time bound  development. China respects strength and exploits the weak. It is imperative that India build capabilities and  enhances existing capacities. There is an ancient Chinese proverb ” To get rich one must build roads” and india has a very long way to go.

The author is former DGMO, Director Centre for Joint Warfare Studies

(Views are personal)

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