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High on rhetoric, but ill-prepared on ground

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If we are to be prepared to counter Chinese designs along the Line of Actual Control and China’s claim over States like Arunachal Pradesh, we need to dramatically ramp up road infrastructure at the borders

President Barack Obama has come and gone. The dust is slowly settling over the Indian capital. Even if very few concrete projects have materialised during the three-day visit, it was a great diplomatic success for Mr Narendra Modi. The bonhomie displayed by the two heads of Government is certainly a good omen for the future. At last India has come out of the dreadful ‘non- alignment’ syndrome.

But one serious concern comes from Mr Modi’s own camp: Several Ministers are not able to think before speaking. The latest is Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma who stated, “If there was a religious centre in Aksai Chin, China would not have dared [enter] and there would have been no need for border security.” Religion and spirituality were Tibet’s way of life, but the Chinese invaded and destroyed 6,000 monasteries.

But that is not all for Mr Modi. Take Arunachal, for example. Despite the good intentions and the publicised resolutions to transform the State, changes take more time than expected. Irredentist China still asserts that the State belongs to it. During his recent visit to Delhi, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was fired by Beijing because he stated that Arunachal Pradesh was under India’s control. Beijing immediately lodged a strong protest: “We hope Japan fully understands the sensitivity of the China-India boundary question”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

At the time of the incident, the website, China Tibet Online explained its stance: “The areas located between the illegal ‘McMahon Line’and the traditional customary boundary between China and India [down to Assam], have always been Chinese territory.” Though this does not make any historical sense, Beijing continues with its claims. At the same time, China develops the areas north of the McMahon on a war footing.

For centuries, one of most sacred places in Tibet was a remote area known as Pemakoe. Dominated by Mt Namcha Barwa, at an altitude of 7,782 metres, it is located in Metok county, north of Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. For the Tibetans, this pristine region was one of their ‘hidden valleys’, said to be the home of Goddess Dorjee Pagmo, Tibet’s Protecting Deity.

As Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao landed in Delhi in December 2010, Xinhua dropped a bombshell: “The tunnel of highway linking Tibet’s Metok completed”, it informed. Though unnoticed by the Indian media, it heralded a significant strategic change for the defence of India’s borders. On October 31, 2013, China Tibet Online reported that the 117-km Metok Highway had been opened to traffic: Pemakoe was not ‘hidden’ anymore. Xinhua announced that the journey by cars or buses to the nearby Bomi county would take hardly eight hours.

Last week, Xinhua announced that the same Metok county “celebrated a tourist boom last year thanks to a new highway”. Tashi, Party chief of the county declared that Metok “received 96,000 tourists last year, almost doubling that in 2013, …[it] expects to welcome 110,000 visitors this year”, bringing revenue of nearly one billion US dollars to the area.

On the Indian side, Prime Minister Modi has to deal with unbelievable difficulties. One is the terrain itself, while others have been the creation of the previous Congress Government. Take the Border Roads Organisation, which has clearly been unable to deliver the goods. There was an irrational dual command between the Ministry of Surface Transport looking after ‘administration’ and the Ministry of Defence taking care of ‘operations’. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar admitted that “with two masters, you don’t get work output”.

It may take years to set things right, but the Modi regime  seems determined. It has been decided to transfer the BRO under the MoD. The organisation will entirely be “defence-controlled and defence-financed”, according to the Defence Minister, quoted by Business Standard. Mr Parrikar added that the Modi Government was “considering transferring of 6,000-7,000 km of roads, which are not in sensitive areas, to the National Highways Authority of India”.

This is good, but today, nobody in Arunachal Pradesh believes that the BRO will be able to keep its promises (amongst them, to complete by 2016 the strategic Balukpong-Tawang road). Another small step in the right direction is the exemption by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest of necessary clearance for the “construction/widening of roads entrusted to the BRO in the area falling within 100 kilometers aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control”.

Press Trust of India reported that the BRO’s Director General , Lt Gen RM Mittal, accompanied by the organisation’s top brass, paid a five-day visit to Arunachal Pradesh early this month. The Director General must have heard of the pathetic case of the 221-km Daporijo-Taksing road in Upper Subansiri district. In November and December, the BRO’s local Chief Engineer, Brigadier HK Pokhariya had to tour the project on foot. This time, the officials flew to the LAC, “for ascertaining the progress of work and to suggest steps to speed up the work”, said a communique.

All essential goods have still to be carried to Taksing circle, which often witnesses Chinese intrusions. The BRO has not enough camps, and, in some cases, according to local sources, it takes three to four  hours for the workforce to reach their workplace. After working a couple of hours, the time comes for the workers to return to their base. When will this be sorted out? The situation on the ground shows that Mr Modi’s dream to stop the migration from the border areas will continue to face huge hurdles.

Another example was that the Protected Area Permit for foreigners, was made more complicated: Tourists from abroad had to go through a tour operator who was charging several times the $50  fixed by the authorities. It appears that the issue has now been solved; a proposal has been approved for relaxation of the permit to promote tourism.

Yet another issue that the Modi Government has not yet been able to solve is the Chinese intrusions. This is going to take more time. It is a pity that the Government remains hesitant and still insists on the antiquated Inner Line Permit (and PAP) for Arunachal Pradesh. This timid attitude seems to encourage Beijing to persist with its wild claims on the region.

Delhi should assert once and for all that the entire Arunachal Pradesh is Indian territory and, therefore, it must treat it on par with any other Indian State. Every Indian national should be allowed to freely visit the State, while, of course, keeping in mind the security issues. Similarly, in every field of governance, the progresses are slow. Still, as long the Modi Government keeps trying to bring about change, there is hope.

 
 
 
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