One of the most strategic landscapes for India is the northeast of India. The region shares a 4,500 km international border with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. The 1,080 km border with China across the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast is disputed, a dispute that led to a war between India and China in 1962. While the 1962 war did not escalate beyond a border war, the cause of the war, a disputed border, has not been resolved as yet. Besides a disputed border, China also claims 90,000 square kms of territory in the northeast; which includes the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh. To China, the state of Arunachal Pradesh is significant for two strategic reasons. First, Arunachal Pradesh borders Tibet. Tibet is one of the most uncomfortable political issues for China given the continuous Tibetan and international questioning of its legitimacy there. China fears that the Tibetan-government-in exile in India could use Arunachal Pradesh as a base to provide external support to the Tibetans in Tibet to resist the Chinese occupation. Secondly, Arunachal Pradesh is home to the second most important monastery of Tibetan Buddhism after Lhasa: the Tawang Monastery. The strong Tibetan Buddhist culture along the border districts of Arunachal Pradesh like Tawang and Upper Siang could provide the vital link to Tibetans inside Tibet looking for outside support. The presence of the Dalai Lama in India and his visits to the Tawang monastery for religious purposes further creates anxieties for China in this regard.
To bolster its territorial claim and keep Tibet under its control, China has built up its military presence in Tibet with about 300,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops coupled with six Rapid Reaction Forces (RPFs) at Chengdu with the ability to reach the India-China border in 48 hours. Several airfields have also been established in Tibet, namely Hoping, Pangta and Kong Ka. Added to this is the massive road building projects undertaken by China in both Tibet and Yunnan right up to the India-China border with an approximate budget of $ 325 billion. Of critical value to China’s troop movement into Tibet is the 2000 km Qinghai-Tibet railway.
Responding to the urgent need to build strategic roads along the India-China border, the Ministry of Home sanctioned Rs.1,934 crore on 4 June 2012 for strategic road projects of about 804 kms in order to support the operational movement of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) along the India-China border, both in the eastern and the western sector. This includes the territory from the Karakoram Pass in Ladakh to Jachep La in Arunachal Pradesh covering about 3,488 kms of border. The task of building these roads have been given to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), and the National Projects Construction Corporation. Significantly, the Arunachal Pradesh 2005 Human Development Report identified infrastructure development as one of the key concerns of the state. This was followed up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s package of Rs. 24,000 crore in 2009 for building the 1,500 kms Trans-Arunachal Pradesh highway.
One of the biggest obstacles to road-building in Arunachal Pradesh has been the Indian strategic mindset which viewed the lack of roads in the state as a defence mechanism to stop Chinese troop movement into India’s heartland if China did a repeat of 1962. This mindset continued to influence New Delhi’s policy towards Arunachal Pradesh right up to mid-2000. However, a more confident India with a strong economy could ill afford to neglect the aspirations of the people of Arunachal Pradesh for better infrastructure. There has been growing demand within Arunachal Pradesh for better roads, more robust Indian defence mechanisms, and better institutional structures. The first sign of a shift in the Indian defensive thinking about strategic roads came about in May 2006 when the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) cleared the construction of strategic roads in Arunachal Pradesh. This reversed the 1962 mindset. Moreover, India was also forced to respond to the rapid Chinese road building activities in bordering countries like Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. China established vital road-links with Nepal via the Kodari highway, which connects Lhasa and Kathmandu. With Pakistan, China is connected through the Karakoram highway. The Chinese presence in Myanmar is enabled by an open border in Yunnan. Roads have benefited Chinese economic activity in these countries and have also enhanced China’s influence in these states that are located along India’s borders. One must note that it is within the Chinese grand strategic matrix to rapidly increase economic ties in South Asia, an effort in which it has been successful.
Besides, one of the biggest complaints of the 120,000 Indian troops stationed in the eastern sector is the lack of road infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh. In that light, the recent announcement of the road package by the MHA is a welcome sign. It now remains to be seen as to how fast the project gets executed. For instance, in 2006-2007, out of Rs.10 crore sanctioned for building border roads, only Rs. 1 crore was spent. In 2008-2009, the allocation of resources went up to Rs. 50 crore but only Rs. 9.1 crore was spent. The utilisation of funds has improved since 2009-2010 with the Rs. 334 crore sanctioned fully utilised that year. Despite that, the BRO, the main strategic road building organisation, indicated to this author during a field visit in 2011 to Arunachal Pradesh that it is an arduous task to build two-lane highways in such hilly and inaccessible terrain. Also, to get the necessary permissions to move the huge dozers for road-building to the interior mountainous areas by helicopter takes a long time. Moreover, the release of funds allocated for border roads takes more than two years to reach its destination, thereby affecting the morale and efficiency of the BRO. Inclement weather also creates havoc, with roads to the India-China border closing down due to landslides during the monsoon season.
Despite all these obstacles, the roads have to be built given the criticality of defending the India-China border. One of the success stories in this regard has been the completion and inauguration of the longest bridge in Arunachal, the 720 metre Digaru Bridge linking Lohit and Dibang valley districts, on April 10 this year. Constructed by the BRO, this bridge will help both locals and the army to move faster. Strategic roads in Arunachal Pradesh will also play a critical role in defending the border against any future Chinese attack. If at all the Chinese escalate their posture, it will, at best, be a combined RRF and aerial move. Hence, India’s air defence structure must be robust and fully prepared taking into account Chinese capabilities and alternative war strategies. Given the present road conditions in Arunachal Pradesh, the physical movement of Indian troops to the border areas takes more than five to seven days. This aspect can be improved with the time taken reduced once the several announced road projects sees the light of day in the near future.