(Subscription required) India’s Himalayan road builders pay the price
The highest fatality rate in the Indian army is not in its infantry battalions massed on the border with arch-rival Pakistan. It is on another frontline closer to China among the army’s high-altitude road builders.
At a meeting in Itanagar, the hill station capital of Arunachal Pradesh, in India’s far north east, Lieutenant General MC Badhani, the director general of the Border Roads Organisation, last week gave a grave account of the gruelling lives his units lead in freezing conditions.
The road builders suffer from high stress and loneliness. Cut off from their families, they can usually only manage two to three years in the desolate Himalayan region bordering China.
During a recent 10-day period, the division lost nine men. Not only are the soldiers’ lives cut brutally short. Earthmoving machinery likewise lasts one third of the time it is meant to in sub-zero temperatures.
Yet the job of India’s military road engineers is likely to become more testing in the months ahead.
Pallam Raju, the minister of state for defence, has given the order that India needs to build infrastructure right up to its 4,000km border with China. He has asked for the urgent deployment of more helicopters to help with a massive airlift to strengthen India’s infrastructure in its Himalayan border states. Such is the rush that helicopters are to be hired from outside the armed services.
India has long neglected to develop its border regions. Reasons include scarce resources and bad weather. Of the BRO’s need for 3,500 tons of material and equipment last year, only 400 tons were delivered. Another factor is strategic. India feared that roads, railways and airports would help the Chinese quickly penetrate deep into India should they invade, as they did almost 50 years ago.
“[The strategy has been to] keep the border region under-developed so that the Chinese couldn’t come across,” Indrani Bagchi, the diplomatic editor of the Times of India, a daily newspaper, says.
“There has been big construction activity on the Indian border. It’s clear to anyone that it’s so much better on the other side.
“People said it was not as easy [to develop] on the Indian side of the border. That’s not an excuse for not doing what we should have done. 2006 was the first time things started to be done on the Indian side.”
Now in Arunachal Pradesh alone, construction is under way of 2,764km of road, more than half again of the existing network.
Envy and fear are the motivators of this reversal of policy.
First, senior political leaders have started to warn that Indians living in border areas neighbouring China are beginning to be jealous of fast-paced development brought by Beijing to the point of regretting being Indian.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, an outspoken former senior diplomat and cabinet minister with responsibility for India's volatile north-east region, views the progress that China has brought to its south-west and Tibet as "simply spectacular".
Second, India fears China’s greater assertiveness in territorial disputes, particularly surrounding Arunachal Pradesh. Not since the 1962 border war has China been so strident about its claims to Indian territory, some of which it considers South Tibet.
The friction between the world’s fastest-growing large economies has triggered disputes over Chinese visas for residents of Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir, obstacles to multilateral lending programmes and a protest by Beijing over the visit by Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, to Arunachal Pradesh before a state election. China’s assistance to Pakistan, military and civilian, has also led to deep misgivings in New Delhi.
The tensions, which extend from the Himalayas to the southern Indian Ocean, are forcing a reappraisal of India’s external threats. Brajesh Mishra, a former national security adviser, has warned that India needs to prepare itself for a military standoff as Beijing seeks to challenge India’s territorial integrity in the international arena.
Mr Mishra, who advised Atul Behari Vajpayee, former prime minister, and is close to current premier Manmohan Singh, predicts an "unprecedented challenge" of simultaneous fronts with Pakistan and with China.
Some senior Indian business leaders believe that India should be firmer with China. Their counterparts are more dismissive. One senior executive at a Chinese company operating in India says the potential for misunderstanding between the powers is caused by a fuzzy colonial-era border, drawn arbitrarily across a map. He says the imprecision of the McMahon Line, agreed in 1914, is the reason why soldiers can stray so easily 100 metres on the “wrong” side of the border.
No doubt the perception of a towering China is helpful as India’s armed forces lobby New Delhi for improved kit, including a multibillion dollar order for fighter jets. A report released by KPMG, the auditing firm, earlier this month estimated that about half of India’s military hardware was obsolete. By some estimates, China’s is about the same.
In the meantime, battle is joined with the pick and shovel across the Himalayas.