Is the Indian Government slowly waking up from its slumber? It seems so, but it would be wise not to celebrate too early.
Union Road and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has announced that his government was “hopeful of completing by next April the construction of highways through Uttarakhand to Kailash-Mansarovar to make it easy for people to visit the abode of Lord Shiva.
The Minister told PTI: “Kailash-Mansarovar is the identity of our rich ancient culture and heritage. …We are cutting rocks through Himalayas to make a new alignment of highways through Uttarakhand for going to Mansarovar.”
Though this sudden interest in India&’s borders is welcome, it is not clear if the minister is aware that ‘Shiva&’s abode’ is not located in India, but in China. Mr Gadkari claimed: “We can reach Mansarovar directly through Uttarakhand.” It is not certain that Beijing, in its present mood, will agree to receive hordes of Indian pilgrims.
Though it did not receive the same publicity that Lipulekh road did, the Jammu & Kashmir government last month ‘approved’ the construction of the 150 km long Chushul-Demchok road. It was a positive move, though the proposal has now been sent to the National Board for Wildlife for clearance. And as usual in India, the ‘final clearance’ may take years …and the construction decades. In 2013, Thuptsan Chhewang, the MP from Ladakh, had advised Delhi: “If we say Ladakh is our territory then why anyone who wants to go beyond Pangong, has to get permission from New Delhi.”
He had suggested that Demchok, the village bordering Tibet, should be opened for tourists: “That would make our claim strong and help in the development of border areas.”
It would certainly go a long way to improve the lives of the local population. But has Delhi the guts and foresight and simply the time, to look into the issue? The Echo of India, a daily publication from Siliguri, understands the reality of the border issue better. In an editorial, it points out: “Chinese troops making occasional incursions into Arunachal Pradesh and then going back on their own is not something new.
Each time such an incursion took place, whether under UPA rule or under NDA rule, the official explanation of New Delhi was that it was a matter of ‘perception’ of the line of actual control and where exactly it lies.”
Early this month, ‘transgressions’ happened again in the Kameng district of Arunachal and one minister stated that it was not so serious: after being involved in a ‘hand-tohand fight’ with Indian soldiers, some 250 Chinese troops distributed chocolates.
The Government seems satisfied with the distribution. The newspaper concludes: “New Delhi must spell out its policy clearly: whether it wants to avoid a military confrontation with China anyhow, or whether it intends to defend the territorial integrity of the country, come what may.
A policy of appeasement will only tempt China to be bolder and more aggressive.” To solve the problem, there is one solution-to build proper infrastructure to the border.
During a visit toUttarakhand, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh declared that all-out efforts should be made to ensure prosperity in the State by “creating employment opportunities for the local youth so that the growing ‘forced migration’ from the resource-crunched state could be checked.”
He also spoke of the mountain region&’s sensitivity as a border state: in other words, build roads, provide telecom facilities, open schools and hospitals. It is what Nehru had realised and planned to do in the early 1950s. Unfortunately nothing happened during the following decades.
One can only hope that it will be different this time, but it is not obvious. For example, it was recently announced that some 73 roads in border areas are ‘way behind schedule’. While the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has recently approved 27 new roads to the border (at an estimated cost of Rs 1,937 crore for a length of 805 km), the Defence Ministry has given its ‘operational clearance’ for 55 roads.
According to The Deccan Herald (DH), both the home and defence ministries are finding it tough “to complete the roads already approved by the government following the recommendations of the China Study Group under the Prime Minister&’s Office, which identified 73 such roads.
The Border Roads Organisation was asked to build 61 of the 73 roads with a total length of 3,417 km; they were to be completed by 2012, but the completion schedule has now been pushed back to 2020: “The roads to be constructed are located in high altitude areas between 9,000 and 14,000 feet. Oxygen depletion limits working capacity of labourers. Other constraints are air support, hard rock, natural calamities and limited working season,” says the document accessed by DH.
What is making India&’s situation more critical is that on the other side of the Himalayan slopes, a deluge of Chinese tourists are arriving. Last year, more than 20 million visited the Tibetan Autonomous Region. According to Lhasa&’s Tourism Bureau, this year Lhasa received 176,100 tourists during the May Day holiday (April 30-May 2).
Bayi, located north of the Indian border of Arunachal Pradesh, received more than 174,000 tourists from January to March in 2016, up by 53 per cent. Incidentally, Bayi (or ‘8-1’) means that the area belongs to the People&’s Liberation Army whose anniversary falls on 8-1 or August 1.
At the same time, Western Tibet (opposite Ladakh) has seen a five-fold increase in visitors over a year. In order to welcome millions of tourists, Beijing develops at a fast pace the infrastructure on the plateau. The British weekly, The Economist, recently wrote: “A colossal roller-coaster is how a senior engineer described it. He was talking about the railway that China plans to build from the lowlands of the south-west, across some of the world&’s most forbidding terrain, into Tibet.” Xinhua also mentions the importance of Chinese ‘tourism’ to defend the borders with India; about National Highway 219, known in India as ‘the Aksai Chin road’. It speaks of a ‘heavenly road bringing the high life to the Tibetan Plateau’. Xinhua remarks: “It is the melon season in neighbouring Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, fresh fruit is stacked up at the roadside, waiting to be ferried through the Kunlun Mountains and up to the plateau along the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway.”
This road has not only linked the two most strategic (and restive) provinces of China (Tibet and Xinjiang) but also helped to tremendously cut the cost of the PLA ‘defending the Indian border’.
According to the Chinese news agency: “With a safe, modern highway, transportation costs from Yecheng [in Xinjiang] to Ngari [in Tibet] have fallen by 55 per cent, leading to cuts of about 40 per cent in the price of commodities in the Tibetan town. Better yet, the number of tourists in Ngari has surged five-fold.” In other words, China&’s ‘Indian front’ will get its supplies faster and cheaper.
Border infrastructure is particularly important at a time when China has undertaken deep military reforms; one of the most important is that the two fronts facing India (in Ladakh and Arunachal), have been merged into one Western Theater Command (formerly Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions), greatly improving the management of the borders with India.
But all this does not deter the Indian Government from its archaic policies: an antiquated ‘Inner Line Permit’ dating from the Raj still prevails in border areas; will this ever change? It was recently announced that it may change soon, but here again, one has to see it to believe it.
(The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of Fate of Tibet)