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Why strategic projects along border are in limbo

November 05, 2013 15:07 IST

India has planned 14 strategic railway lines in areas bordering China, Pakistan and Nepal, but most of these projects are stuck for want of funds. Anusha Soni reports 

With China all set to pump on another $1.2 billion (120 crore) in its Tibetan Rail project which will bring rail connectivity right up to the Indian border, India too is getting ready to beef up its border security.

On the agenda are 14 strategic rail lines along its borders with China and Pakistan. However, while these rail lines are critical to meeting India's security challenges, want of funds could delay these ambitious projects which are expected to cost more than Rs 78,000 crore.

Some of these lines were planned a hundred years ago but have not seen any development. Surveys for two of the 14 lines are still to be completed and cost of four lines yet to be estimated. The main hurdle has been the absence of a cost-sharing agreement between the various ministries involved.

In December 2012, Defence Minister A K Antony had in the Lok Sabha described these 14 lines as being strategically important for national security. The rail lines, planned in accordance with inputs from the defence ministry, are to be laid in the border areas of Punjab, Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. (Click here for graphics)

The three lines planned in Rajasthan are crucial for the movement of troops and artillery to the border. "The terrain of Rajasthan is suited for mechanised warfare. But some tracks in the state are still (the ageing and archaic) meter gauge, with single lines. Doubling (the tracks) in the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer area will save the time required to move supplies," says Brig (retd) Rumel Dahiya, deputy director general at the Institute of Defence Studies & Analyses.

"If you have a broad gauge rail line in the border areas, you can move tanks and heavy artillery without noise and dust," he adds. Experts say that enhanced connectivity can save up to two days' of travel time. The Patti-Ferozepur track in Punjab, for example, will reduce the time taken to supply goods to border areas, like Tarn-Taran district, by about 12 hours. The line will run parallel to the border and will enhance the strategic mobility and flexibility in employment of troops," says Dahiya.

Moving to Uttarakhand, four lines are planned here in the difficult Himalayan terrain. Official sources say that work has started on the 160-km Hrishikesh-Karnaprayag-Chamoli line and that the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited, which has undertaken the task, is currently awaiting environmental clearances for the initial 12-km stretch. RVNL has submitted details of the line alignment to the state government and Railway Board for approval.

One of the most expensive lines -- expected to cost about Rs 19,108 crore -- is the 378-km-long Missamari-Tawang link which will connect areas of Arunachal Pradesh, disputed by China, with Assam. With the Chinese aggressively building infrastructure on the other side close to the border, this line becomes crucially important.

"Chinese infrastructure projects have grave strategic implications for India and are a significant leg of the overall Chinese recalibration in South Asia," says Monika Chansoria, senior fellow at the Centre for Land and Warfare Studies in Delhi. "This extensive development of infrastructure in areas bordering India suggests the impetus being given to the People's Liberation Army's logistics capability, which, in turn, will enhance its operational capability in these areas - some of which are in dispute with India," Chansoria adds.

Experts also point out that the road network in Arunachal Pradesh and the rest of the Northeast is on the ridges running from north to south. There is almost no connectivity from east to west, which increases the distances three-times.

The Akhnoor-Poonch line, meanwhile, would create a parallel network along the border with Pakistan and enhance connectivity near the Line of Control with Pakistan. 

Of the 14 lines, preliminary survey for 10 has been completed, but work has begun on only two. This is despite the fact that these rail lines have been declared national projects. Funding is expected from the finance ministry. Railways had earlier expressed its inability to fund any of these projects.

Apart from the Hrishikesh-Karnaprayag line, work on the 30-km stretch of the Murkongselek-Pasighat segment has been started by North Frontier Railways. Government officials who are part of the project point out that this segment is a flat track and that the real challenges lies ahead, in the rest of the track from Tezu to Rupai. The cost of the 30-km stretch is expected to be around Rs 10 crore per km.

Official sources say that recently the Uttarakhand chief minister had asked for the projects in the state to be speeded up, but the cost involved is proving to be a hurdle. Sources in the Planning Commission say that "unfortunately" these projects are not on the priority list for funding. "Although we understand that these projects cannot be placed in the same category as other projects, but there is currently no consensus on resource allocation," says a senior official in the Planning Commission.

Other officials maintain that these projects need to be phased out. "We are in consultation with the defence ministry so that it can identify the priority projects. A cost-sharing formula also has to be agreed on between the ministries of defence and finance and the Planning Commission," says an official.

A final location survey might also be needed before funds for the projects are allocated. "Usually, the project gets the money after the preliminary survey, but in this case, keeping the cost escalations in mind, we might want to have a detailed project report first," says an official.

Apart from the costs, the tough terrain also poses a challenge. Experts say India does not have any experience of building rail tracks at high altitude and in tough terrains like those in the Himalayas.

There is no good news with regard to road construction either. The Cabinet Committee on Security had set the deadline of 2012 for the completion of 73 key road projects which were classified as India-China Border Roads. 

The defence ministry has been pushing for faster construction of these 73 roads that can be used around the year and can sustain harsh weather conditions. About 15 of them have been completed till now. A study done by CLAW points out that the construction of roads in the Northeast has been put under the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme for the North East. The project, divided into two phases, will undertake the construction of 1,300 km in the first phase and 5,700 km in the second. The deadline is 2013. About 36 out of these 73 roads are in Arunachal Pradesh, given its proximity to China.

The worry is not without reason. China has built a network of integrated highways and subsidiary/feeder roads that connect the Tibet Autonomous Region to border areas with India, Nepal and Bhutan. It has developed 58,000 km of road network in Tibet, which includes five major highways and subsidiary roads, says a study by CLAW.

The Yunnan-Tibet highway holds strategic importance for India, as the Chinese army is currently building an eastern theatre opposite to that of India. China is also heavily investing in border areas by constructing new airfields and upgrading new advanced landing grounds. "The construction of airfields and advanced landing grounds closer to Indian borders boosts the PLA Air Force fighter aircrafts' striking range and provides PLAAF the ability to strike and engage targets in India on a broad front and in depth," says Chansoria.

Delay from the Indian side to boost the infrastructure will have long-term effects on India's overall bargaining power, especially with China, says a former defence officer on the condition of anonymity. A study has also revealed that low infrastructure development also makes India "more vulnerable to manipulation of river water". In 2004, after China informed India that an artificial lake had formed on Pareechu river, a tributary of Sutlej, India was denied the permission to assess the causes of its formation, causing suspicion that the lake was man-made.

Dahiya points out that poor infrastructure also leaves out the emotional integration of people. "It makes people disconnected and gives the enemy a chance to fuel local unrest and take advantage of the situation."

The rail links, assert experts and defence officials, are fundamentally important to national security as we already lose out on the competition with China.

Anusha Soni in New Delhi
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