Friday, November 11, 2011

Pickaxe and Shovel war

The Indian Army is a gigantic organization with 1.3 million active persons on the rolls. Numerous army battalions or units, carry out a plethora of jobs all over the country, from safeguarding the Indian borders to building roads. If one is asked to find out the riskiest job done by the army units, an easy way would be look at fatalities in various battalions during say last year. I always thought that the Infantry battalions facing India’s borders with Pakistan or China, are carrying out the most dangerous job and the human fatalities would be highest in these battalions.

However the truth is quite different. We are loosing men who probably have never even held a gun in their hands. These men are the personnel of Border Roads Organization and normally work with a pickaxe or a shovel, somewhere on the high altitude roads near the Chinese borders.
Speaking at a meeting held last month in Itanagar, the hill station capital of Arunachal Pradesh, Lieutenant General MC Badhani, the director general of the Border Roads Organization, gave a grave account of the grueling lives of his men living and working in sub-zero conditions.

These brave men have to suffer spells of loneliness, totally cut of from their families and dear ones. They face continuously very high stress situations under sub-zero conditions in the desolate areas in Himalayas bordering China, usually for a period of two to three years,which takes a very heavy toll on their health. In month of December, over a short period of 10 days, the unit lost 9 men due to these harsh conditions. It is not that only human lives are cut short in such environment, even the earth-moving machinery has a life expectancy which is only one third of the useful life, one can expect in other places. After this period, the machinery is in such a bad shape that it needs to be sold as scrap.

However it appears now, that the road building work load on BRO is bound to increase by substantial extent. This means that for the men of this organization, future is going to be even more testing time than at present. To carry out expected work in such difficult terrain, under extremely hard and harsh conditions, is bound to be a daunting task for this organization and presents a really tough challenge for the Indian Army.
BRO or Border Roads Organization was in fact set up, many years ago to carry out this job and have been doing this work ever since. That being the case, one wonders why this sudden spurt in the activity. In fact, some of the figures and facts available tell us about the magnitude and urgency of the task. Defense ministry has now ordered BRO to build infrastructure right along the 4000 KM long Chinese border with India. Transport of heavy earth moving machinery to this difficult terrain is an almost impossible task. During last year BRO wanted 3500 Tons of machinery to be shifted to this region. In practice they could move only 400 Tons. To overcome this problem Defense ministry has decided to charter helicopters with heavy load carrying capacity to make up the short fall. Just in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, 2764 KM long roads are being built. Incidentally, this figure is roughly half of the total length of roads already built in this region today.

There are reasons for this sudden spurt of activity . For many decades since the war with China in 1961, Indian Government totally neglected development of areas adjoining Chinese border. The logic behind this decision, was that the underdevelopment of the region and absence of any infrastructure, would deter China from taking up another adventure in this region. As a result of this policy, even preliminary facilities for communications, transport and electricity were never planned or built up in this area.
However, Chinese authorities have taken up huge amount of developmental works in the border region such as roads for thousands of kilometers, airports etc since last two decades. This has brought about progress in the region of south-west Tibet, which could be nothing but spectacular. As a result, people residing in the border region have started being envious of the people and regions across the borders. Senior politicians have realized this and have started warning the central Government about this feeling amongst border people.
Simultaneously, Chinese media have started adopting a very tough stance regarding border dispute, Dalai Lama and several other matters with India. They even objected to the visit of Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. Since Chinese media are just mouth pieces for the Government, it has very serious implications. This change in the tone and the language, which has been noticed for the first time after 1961, when India and China went to war, has made the strategic planners in Delhi to sit up and notice. There is a realization that if India wishes to stand eyeball to eyeball vis-a-vis Chinese, it also must talk in an equally tough language. This could be done only if India has or develops a physical capability to move requisite number of troops to the border at a very short notice. This capability can come only if requisite infrastructure and communications are in place.

After realization of the harsh realpolitik , machinery of the Government of India has finally started moving at a gathering pace and since 2006 there is a flurry of construction activities in the region without giving any excuses.
At present,this border war is being fought, with pickaxes and shovels it seems.
17 March 2010

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