NITI, UTTARAKHAND: While the nation’s eyes were riveted on the war of eyeballs at Doklam, the Indian Army was battling another set of adversities on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Uttarakhand just so as to be prepared should any hostilities break out. A visit to the frontier by The New Indian Express, even as the ‘expeditious disengagement’ at Doklam was being announced, brought home the odds India’s military faces in securing India’s borders in this arc of the LAC.
The path up to Barahoti, Niti Pass and other areas close to the LAC is treacherous. It’s a narrow snaky path with the sheer drop of the mountain on one side and a steep valley on the other. Landslides and shooting stones are a possibility at any time. A misjudgment by an inch or two can result in a plunge down the valley with absolutely no hope of survival. Get caught in a landslide and there is no guarantee how long one could be stuck here without help.
There’s no mobile phone connectivity throughout the 100 km stretch and not a single fuel station. Plus, at heights above 16,000 ft, oxygen is rare and high-altitute pulmonary oedema can be a killer. In case the situation demands travel at night, this is nothing but a deadly game of Russian roulette.
Ever since the Doklam standoff began between India and China, hundreds of trucks transported artillery equipment and thousands of men up this treacherous stretch from Josihmath to the LAC. The heavy movement of artillery and troops was carried out amid fears that a ‘limited action’ could take place on this front instead of at Doklam. Repeated incursions by Chinese troops here indicated that possibility.
In sharp contrast to the metal-topped roads, rail links, air strips, radar systems, fuel depots and other state-of-the-art infrastructure on the Chinese side, the Indian Army convoys which were moved to Joshimath from different places were vastly hampered by the poor infrastructure on the Indian side. p9
Some of the units arrived here from Dehradun, about 300 km away, after navigating landslide-prone zig-zagging roads. But their hardest task was the last 100 km stretch from Joshimath to Barahoti and Niti Pass.
To travel from Joshimath to Niti Pass, civilians need an Inner Line Permit from the office of the sub-divisional magistrate in Joshimath. At Tapovan, some 15 km beyond Josihmath, mobile phones go dead. Further along starts a dangerously slushy path which can bring vehicles to the brink if not driven carefully.
At Niti Pass, one driver of an army truck said the 100 km to Niti Pass took army convoys 11 hours to complete. Since they were moving heavy artillery and men, they were vulnerable to landslides, which are always likely in the rainy season. If darkness falls midway through the movement, the trucks just stop for the night.
“It’s like living on the edge all the time,” said the driver. “Once it turns dark, there is no way anyone can move an inch. It gets completely dark with zero visibility. You cannot expect street lights here.”
As it rained heavily on many days, the frequency of shooting stones and landslides increased, making it impossible for troops to move forward. “On August 15, some 32 vehicles crossed Malari village and many of them got stuck en route due to landslides. Earth movers had to be summoned by satellite phones,’’ said a local police official.
Many of the Army and ITBP truck drivers were new to the terrain. The troops that were already deployed here before the Doklam standoff had got used to the terrain and their drivers became expert at navigating this route. But since there was huge deployment from other places and the drivers were new, it became a major problem.
At many places expecting help from local villages is not possible because several of them, from Tapovan to Jumma, Malari, Kurkuti, Bampa, Gamshali and finally Niti, have been emptied out due to out-migration from the hills.
“If there were better blacktopped roads, mobile connectivity, hospitals, petrol bunks and other infrastructure, it would aid the mobility of the forces. More than the real enemy, these factors hinder us before we reach the battle front,’’ said an ITBP jawan.
Despite the war of 1962, no government since then has paid attention to improving infrastructure along the LAC. It was only on a few stretches of this path that new roads are being laid and workers said it would take a long time before the the last mile is covered. Work on this terrain is difficult, but then it’s the same on the Chinese side but it is better equipped.
There are several bridges, small and big, in this area but these were only repaired by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) just before the movement of troops began. Many bridges that were in a bad shape were patched up for the immediate purpose of moving the artillery and men to the border, an official said.
A drive on these bridges can make one jittery for the cliff falls off steeply down to the Dhauli Ganga river. “You never know when this will fall,” said one driver said as we inched along.
Senior officials in Uttarakhand were loath to admitting that the infrastructure on this side of the LAC is inadequate when compared to what Beijing has done on its side. However, ever since the Doklam standoff, BRO has stepped up work on the roads.
“There have been several proposals for highways, railway lines, air bases, logistics and other infrastructure. But for some reason, they remained on paper for decades. Now that we had the Doklam standoff, hopefully the government will focus on building infrastructrure here,” a senior official said.
India and China share a 3,488 km border that arcs over several Himalayan states. In Uttarakhand, a 345 km line passes by Barahoti, a grassland in Chamoli district.
It has seen frequent incursions by the Chinese. The dispute at Barahoti dates back to the British era when the area was popular among traders going to Tibet in the summer. However, in 1954, India stopped trade with Tibet after the Panchsheel agreement.
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The probe point called Barahoti
The first known transgression by China in Barahoti took place in 1954. Thereafter there have been hundreds more. Last year, two PLA helicopters hovered over Barahoti, which is located in the middle of the 3488 km long LAC and the PLA keeps asserting itself here. In 1958, India and China agreed that Barahoti was a disputed territory