Border roads plans have lost their way

India’s plans to strengthen its defence preparedness by improving the road network near its disputed border with China have failed to make much headway. A 2006-07 plan approved construction of 73 strategic Sino-Indian border roads. These were to be completed in 2012. However, a decade and several extended deadlines later just 21 roads have been completed, with work on 2 roads yet to be initiated. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which is responsible for construction of most of these roads, has now announced that it will meet the deadline by 2020. Even as the BRO huffs and puffs to complete roads planned a decade ago, the Ministry of Home Affairs has announced plans for another 55 roads near India’s border with China.

Planning for the future is necessary and welcome. However, the government needs to probe BRO’s poor performance so far before tasking it with more roads. Without recognising and correcting mistakes, planning new roads will lead nowhere. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence has blamed lack of adequate funds for the delay in border road construction.

Apparently, the budgetary allocations requested by the BRO have been repeatedly turned down by the Finance Ministry. For the 2016-17 period, for instance, BRO asked for Rs 5,044 crore but just Rs 3,075.73 crore was allocated.

Admonishing the government, the parliamentary panel has pointed out that cuts on allocations to the BRO will adversely impact India’s national security. While no compromise must be made on issues relating to our national security, the delay in construction of border roads cannot be attributed to inadequate funds alone. Bureaucratic red tape and delays in securing environmental clearances are slowing road construction. Additionally, India’s security establishment has long viewed road building near the Chinese border as likely to facilitate an advance of Chinese troops into India in the event of war. This timid mindset underlies India’s slow pace of border road building.
India needs roads at its border not only to improve its defence preparedness but also for trade and economic development of its border regions. China has developed a massive network of roads and rails across Tibet that is rapidly extending towards the Indian border. Border trade between the two countries is still limited but when Chinese trains laden with goods arrive at the Indian border, India must be ready to match the Chinese challenge. The derelict state of its border roads at present indicates that the country will not be able to meet that challenge. China’s spectacular road building achievements in the Himalayas should inspire India to address its border roads problem more energetically.

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