The Indian Armed Forces are the heroes of the Uttarakhand tragedy, rescuing thousands and flying hazardous missions to drop food packets and medical supplies. Now, they face a new strategic challenge of gargantuan proportions — to protect India’s eastern border from Chinese adventurism.
The floods have washed away all important roads and bridges that are key to the movement of troops and weapons on the Sino-Indian border. Army officers point out that rebuilding the key defence infrastructure could take up to a couple of months, even if the work is done on a war-footing ahead of the winter. Until then, the Army will have to stay on high alert.
Uttarakhand falls under the 545-km central sector of the 4,057-km Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC). It faces China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region, where the People’s Liberation Army has the capability to move 30 divisions of 15,000 troopers close to the LAC within a month by using its 58,000- km-long road network. The Uttarakhand floods have rendered most of the Indian Army border posts and formations in the state inaccessible.
On the Uttarkashi-Harsil road, which goes all the way north close to the LAC, the Bhaironghati-Nelong stretch has been washed away at several spots.
The Army is now maintaining communication with troops in the forward areas at Sonam, Nagar and Nilapani only by foot or through helicopters, to airdrop supplies and equipment to the stranded.
On the Joshimath-Badrinath road, the damage has been so extensive that the stretch of road all the way to the forward post at Mana Pass on the LAC has been blocked and movement is possible only by foot to locations such as Rattakona, Ghastoli and Musapani, says a military officer. The situation is so bad on the Joshimath-Kurkuti stretch that only movement on foot is possible. As a result, locations such as Geldung, Ghamsali, Sumna and Girthidobla are now being retained for supplies on foot, an officer said.
With regard to the Pithoragarh-Tawaghat sector, the stretch of the road between Jauljibi and Muniyari has been breached at 26 locations, resulting in the higher reaches such as Bugdiar and Milam, apart from Talachula Nallah, being blocked by landslides.
The Darchula-Sobla stretch also suffered damage at 67 locations with several bridges being washed away, rendering this road stretch useless for vehicular traffic, an officer said.
These roads need to be ready as per military specifications for the Army to transport heavy equipment to the forward areas. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is engaged in getting the roads repaired.
India is already lagging behind in border infrastructure along the LAC due to neglect due to the 1962 war debacle and fears that invading troops would use the roads and bridges to make quick progress into the Indian mainland.
China has been assiduously building its road network along the LAC in Tibet. It has built motorable roads with military specifications reaching close to the LAC with India. While the Chinese have a road right up to a kilometre of Mana Pass in Uttarakhand on the Indian side, Indians still continue to service the pass by foot. The nearest Indian road to Mana Pass is 35 km away at Musapani. This road is now being extended further up to Ghastoli. The Chinese also have a road up to only two km on their side at Lungi-Jindu-Niti Pass, whereas Indians have a road 50 km away at Malari. Similarly, the Chinese road is just about 700 metre away from Lipulekh. The Indian answer is one 80 km away from Lipulekh and this road is now being extended only a little north.
Among the five strategic roads that the high-profile China Study Group gave approval for construction in Uttarakhand, the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) was entrusted with the 24 km Niti-Geldung, 13.5 km Sonam-PDA, 4.5 km PDA-Sumla, 4 km PDA-Mendi and 42 km Nyu-Sobla-Sela-Tedang stretches. Of these, the CPWD has completed 60 per cent of work in the first four stretches and just about 25 per cent in the last stretch, says an Indian Army officer, noting that the six to seven-year delay was due to troubles with private land acquisition.
Uttarakhand was allocated another nine roads but none have been completed as BRO faced problems due to the stone quarrying ban in the upper reaches of the Ganges. The impact of the devastation is still being discovered all over the state. But it would easily run into a couple of hundred crores, considering that the border roads get a budgetary allocation of around Rs 500 crore to Rs 600 crore a year,” a senior military officer told The Sunday Express. Projects to build five strategic roads in Uttarakhand are going at a slow speed. The newly damaged roads (16 major) and bridges (5 major) have only compounded the problem.