Border roads: Providing muscle to India’s strategic needs

The recent push in border infrastructure by PM Modi and his government and the zealous execution by the Border Roads Organisation have provided the vital muscle in securing India’s borders.

The latest standoff between India and China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has brought focus on the Border Roads Organisation or BRO. Of significance, currently, is the Atal Tunnel on the Manali-Leh highway, an important infrastructure project which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is dedicating to the nation. This 9-km-long tunnel will cut down travel time to Leh by reducing the distance by 46 km, and take us one step closer to making connectivity to Ladakh feasible in all weather. Usually, Ladakh remains cut off from the rest of the country during winters when both routes to Leh — the one from Srinagar and another from Manali — remain closed. 

The 9-km-long Atal Tunnel in Rohtang, which had been under construction for about a decade, picked up pace in 2018-19, once the formidable challenge of the 587 m Seri Nallah Fault Zone was overcome. The tunnel has now been completed and will provide all-weather connectivity to Lahaul and Spiti and also ensure the rapid and early movement of troops and logistics to Leh for the current standoff with China.

 In fact, the whole situation is being attributed to the recent progress made by BRO in accelerating border infrastructure projects, as these appear to have triggered alarm bells in China’s security establishment. The increased pace of road construction along our borders is being seen as an indication of India’s offensive intent and highlights the strategic and important role of BRO. Recently, during my interaction with the top leadership of BRO, I have noticed a paradigm shift in the work culture of this organisation. Since the current Director General has taken over, BRO has seen a major surge in outcomes delivered in the last couple of years. This is evident from the fact that about 30% more work was executed this year, as compared to last year, in spite of Covid-19 restrictions. The budget and expenditure trend of BRO also points in the direction of the extraordinary and exponential outcomes delivered by the organisation. From a stagnant annual budget of about Rs 4,000 crore from 2009-15, the expenditure increased to Rs 7,000 crore in 2018- 19 and to Rs 8,000 crore in 2019-20. The BRO budget for FY 2020-21 is now pegged at Rs 11,000 crore.

 The strategic focus of the present government on improving infrastructure along the northern and western borders has resulted in better connectivity in border and strategic areas. The strategic Pathankot – Jammu Highway, that links J&K with the rest of the country, now has an alternate route with 17 bridges along the international borders, and over four lakh people in 217 villages have all-weather connectivity. Along the Line of Control (LoC) with POK, work on the upgradation of the Akhnoor-Poonch highway, with four tunnels and bypasses around congested areas, is supposed to reduce the distance by 34 km and facilitate the smooth and swift movement of the armed forces when required. 

In the Kashmir valley, the government is keen to ensure all-round development, as seen by the four-laning of the Srinagar-Baramulla-Uri highway. The roads towards the LoC, that are being upgraded, which go to places like Tangdhar, Keran, and Gurez, and the tunnels that are being planned across strategic passes, shall not only provide strategic connectivity but also open up the gates of opportunity for the local population, enabled by that connectivity.

 The long-term plan for all-weather connectivity to Leh hinges upon the construction of the Z-Morh and Zojila tunnels on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh highway – work for which is already underway. The Ministry of Road Transport & Highways and the BRO have jointly planned three more tunnels at Baralachala, Tanglingla and Lachulungla along the Manali-SarchuLeh highway, although this shall mean a huge expenditure and would be an extremely time-consuming exercise. The BRO is also working on connecting Leh through the Zanskar Valley through the construction of a new road. This road joins Darcha on the Manali-Leh highway with Nimu on the Kargil-Leh Highway via Padam and Niraq in the Zanskar Valley. It involves negotiating just one pass at Shinkunla and the construction of just one tunnel will provide all-weather connectivity with Leh. 

While axial connectivity towards forward areas remains the area of focus, there is also a need to ensure lateral links parallel to the LAC for strategic purposes. A road between Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh through Sumdo – Karzok – Kaito involves the construction of a tunnel at Taklingla. Similar plans are also in place to connect the forward areas of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand from Karcham to Harsil with a tunnel at Lamkhaga Pass.

 In Uttarakhand, there are three sectors wherein roads lead up to the China border. These are the Harshil, Joshimath and Pithoragarh sectors. In the Harshil sector, a double lane road is complete for 316 km up to PDA, which is just 16 km from Thagla pass on the China border. In the Joshimath sector, the roads to the China border get bifurcated into two limbs. BRO has connected Mana pass and provided a double lane road till Ghastoli. Both Niti Pass and Rimkhim are connected. The BRO has already connected the KailashMansarovar Yatra route up till Navidang as well as the route to Adi Kailash Parbat.

 BRO has also been entrusted with the responsibility of building 400 km of roads in Uttarakhand and 250 kms in Sikkim under the Bharatmala Project, at a cost of over Rs 9,000 crore. This will be a major step in upgrading the infrastructure in border areas. In Sikkim, the districts of North Sikkim and East Sikkim share boundaries with China. In North Sikkim, double lane roads are being provided right up to the Sino-India border under the Bharatmala Pariyojana. In East Sikkim, BRO has completed roads up to Dokala and, this year, it will complete another shorter alignment road to Dokala from Flag Hill. Further north, the border locality of Chola has been connected with Gangtok by the BRO and an alternate alignment connecting it to North Sikkim is under progress via Tamze to Toong.

 Meanwhile, the TransArunachal Highway will connect at the base of all five valleys. Major works are being undertaken in Arunachal Pradesh on the road to Tawang. This sector had seen a lot of action during the 1962 war with China. The entire road of 317 km has been double laned with 42 km of bypasses and tunnels designed for the smooth flow of traffic. This road is being provided with all-weather connectivity by the BRO by constructing tunnels at Nechiphu and Sela. The Sela tunnel project foundation stone had been laid by PM Modi in February 2019, with the completion date set for February 2022. The tunnel is at a height of 10,000 feet under the Sela Pass (13,800 feet). It will ensure all-weather connectivity of Tawang from Guwahati. There will be two tunnels of 1,790 metres and 475 metres, both of which will be ready by the end of 2021.

 In the last two decades, China has undertaken rapid infrastructure development in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), including the areas close to its border with India. This has enhanced China’s force application and logistic sustenance capability in TAR. The improved infrastructure further facilitates the deployment of Chinese missile bases and longrange bombers in Tibet. The only way to counter this is by way of enhancing our infrastructure in the region. The Indo-China Border Road (ICBR) Project was launched to reduce our mobilisation timings and connect our forward localities. Accordingly, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) identified 73 ICBRs. These 73 roads are spread in five states/UTs bordering China. The BRO has connected the farthest localities of Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), Hot Springs, Demchok and Zursar. DBO was an air-maintained post which is now connected with the 255 km long Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road. This road traverses through a highaltitude glaciated region totally devoid of habitation. It witnesses temperatures ranging from +38°C in the summer to -55°C in winters. 

In summers, the melting of glaciers leads to huge quantities of ice debris in the rivers, which further leads to the formation of islands and a change in the direction of the flow of the stream pushing the water channels towards the roadside. Due to this, breaches in road surface take place on account of scouring. Battling all such odds, the BRO has constructed this road, and now our armed forces will get maintained by a land route. The travel time has also reduced from the erstwhile seven days to only one day. Casualty evacuation can take place in the hours of darkness as also during days with bad weather. In the case of any untoward incident with our neighbour, the reserve troops can be inducted very quickly.

 In Himachal Pradesh, the forward most localities of Point 4840, Lepcha and Shipkila have been connected. In Uttarakhand, the forward most localities of Sumla, Mana Pass, Niti Pass, Rimkhim, Jolingkong and Lipulekh have been connected. In Sikkim, the forward most localities of Kerang, Dongkyala, Gorala, Chola, Nathula and Dokala have been connected. And, in Arunachal Pradesh, the forward most localities of Kharsangla, Vasu Rock, Bumla, Chuna, Taksing, Lamang, Tadadege, Gelling, Kibithu and Dichu have been connected. 

Efficient and strategic infrastructure enhances the capabilities of the armed forces manifold. We must congratulate the thousands of Border Road engineers who have done commendable work by building this infrastructure in extreme weather and geographical conditions. Such close coordination between the various agencies of the government, like the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, has never been seen before, and has resulted in the stellar job of speeding up the construction of roads. The recent push in border infrastructure by PM Modi and his government and the zealous execution by the Border Roads Organisation have provided the vital muscle in securing India’s borders. The result is for all to see — even our neighbours are worried of this development today — and needs no further saying.

 The writer is an independent observer on infrastructure, economy and governance, and presently, an Advisor to the Minister of Road Transport & Highways