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Smell the coffee along the China border
While Beijing has been pressing with remarkable speed in developing infrastructure along its borders with India, the latter has shown equally remarkable laxity over the same. Hopefully, things will now change
The Army Commanders’ Conference was recently held at the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun. Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Minister for Defence Manohar Parrikar, dignitaries were given an extensive briefing by the three Services chiefs, particularly on infrastructure development along the China and Pakistan borders.
At a time when China is investing billions of yuans to develop its ‘Indian’ frontiers, it was a timely review. On January 23, the website, China Tibet Online, announced that a road leading to the last two townships without road access in Tibet, would soon be completed. Both roads in Metok County of Nyingchi town, started in 2015, are expected to be soon operational. The Metok County is situated north of the Tuting Circle of Upper Siang of Arunachal Pradesh, where the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India to become the Siang (and later the Brahmaputra).
The Chinese article says: “The geological conditions are complex with high mountains and deep valleys, leading to high road construction costs and long construction periods.” In 2017 alone, a total of 52 billion yuan (nearly six billion dollars) will be invested in infrastructure assets on the plateau, and “355km of high-grade highway [will be added], leading to a total highway mileage of more
than 90,000 km.”
The Chinese website adds that these roads could not be built earlier “due to the high mountains and deep valleys”. It was only in October 2013 that Metok Highway was officially opened to the public: “Metok waved goodbye to China’s last County without road access”, said China Tibet Online.
On the other side of the range, the situation is different. A recent article in The Arunachal Times describes the sad state of affairs. Journalist Tongam Rina recounts her ‘memorable trip’ to Tuting; she had joined an all-women team from the Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies of Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar. Rina writes: “After a few kilometres of good roads, we hit the typical Arunachal road; forever under-construction, chopping off hills that inevitably result in landslides during the monsoon, at the same time destroying whatever is left of an existing road.”
She continues her narration after a first night on the way: “…The next morning, the caretaker of the guesthouse prompted us to eat, “Tuting ka rasta bahut dur hai, khana jaldi nehi milega… After a few kilometres out of town, we were on bumpy, narrow road again. The only saving grace was the mighty beautiful Siang, flowing majestically below.”
The description is vivid: “And a bad jerk forced me to look at the road again. The road is so bad that one can’t drive more than 15 kilometres per hour. One bad move from the driver because of the bad road could literally end the journey.”
On the other side, China is planning to build a Gangdise International Tourism Cooperation Zone in Ngari Prefecture, adjoining Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, ‘to serve as an opening window to South Asia’(sic). Gangdise or Trans-Himalaya is a term coined by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin in the 19th century. It is the space on both sides of the main Himalayan range, following the Indian border.
KangbaTV, a Chinese site about Tibet, explains that the zone will cover areas around the Himalaya, mainly in Ngari area, but it will also include Shigatse, Lhoka (southeast of Lhasa), Purang (near Mt Kailash), Zham (landport with Nepal), Yatung (in Chumbi Valley), Kyirong (border between Nepal and Tibet) and Tsona (north of Tawang). But the main development will focus on western Tibet. The website adds: “Scenic spots in Ngari area are all featured. With the drive of the main scenic spots, travelling routes of other tourist spots have been gradually developed, which will make Ngari tourism a growth-pole of Tibet’s tourism.”
China is planning to transform the Trans-Himalayan region into a mega tourist spot. For the purpose, Beijing announced that two new highways will soon be constructed leading to the Indian border and that Highway G219, the main artery connecting Tibet to Xinjiang (also known as the Aksai Chin road) will be upgraded. All this will be done during China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).
The first new highway, known as G564, will branch off from the G219, near Mount Kailash (Tharchen) and head south, passing between Mansarovar and Rakshas lakes before reaching Purang, near the tri-junction Nepal-India-Tibet. The length of the road will be 107 km; it is designed for a speed of 80 km/h. The construction should be completed by August 2019. The second highway, the G365, will connect the G219 to Tholing and Tsaparang. The ancient monastic complexes are presently being restored to bring a large number of Chinese tourists to the famous ruins of the Guge Kingdom.
Another important development is the construction a second highway between Tibet and Xinjiang, via Minfeng. The road will be 558 km long. The deeply-worrying aspect of the project is that it crosses the highly eco-sensitive Changthang National Nature Reserve. It will run for 110 km in the main reserve, about 270 km in the buffer zone and some 100 km in the ‘experimental area’. More than one billion American dollars is invested in the project. The road should be put into operation by early 2021.
All this comes at a time when Beijing has announced the creation of a new Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development. It was launched on January 22, and according to The People’s Daily, experts have declared it vital for China’s national defence “The commission will decide and coordinate affairs on civil-military integration”. It will function directly under the Politburo’s Standing Committee with President Xi Jinping as the Chairman.
In the meantime, Delhi still lives in the Middle Ages, with an antediluvian Inner Line Permit and hardly any cooperation between the Armed Forces and the civil administration (at least in Ladakh).
But India has perhaps a chance. For the first time, the National Security Advisor, the Army chief and the Director of the Research & Analysis Wing are all natives of Pauri Garwhal in Uttarakhand. One can hope that the paharis will understand better the issue of mountain development.
The Indian Expressrecently noted: “Pauri Garhwal district has the distinction of sending three men to topmost positions in the current security establishment. At the same time, it suffers high migration out of the hills, thanks to near-zero irrigation, declining farming, zero employment, poor education and health facilities.”
And no highways of course! Let us hope that this will be remedied soon. It’s of vital interest to the country’s security and stability.
(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author of several books on the subject)
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