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India moves mountains to build military road to China border

Published on 07 Apr 2017 by Team

On the near-vertical slopes of the eastern Himalayas, workers are blasting and cutting treacherous rock faces to build a top-priority military asset: a 34-mile road to the country’s disputed border with China.

Far away in the capital New Delhi-a six-day journey by foot, road, rail and air-Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office is monitoring their progress as he doubles down on a billion-dollar infrastructure plan in this contested region to strengthen India’s hand against its powerful neighbor.

India is accelerating work on strategic roads to be able to move troops and supplies to the border faster and deploy sophisticated weapons if armed conflict breaks out. China already has extensive infrastructure on its side. “It’s not business as usual,” a senior official overseeing the project said. “We have shifted gear.”

Beijing claims 35,000 square miles of territory here, almost the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, and calls it South Tibet. The arrival in the state this week of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader-who China calls a separatist-has stirred the rivalry, which goes deeper than the border dispute. The Dalai Lama’s itinerary in Arunachal Pradesh includes the Tawang Monastery, where he took refuge in 1959 when he fled China’s crackdown in Tibet, beginning decades of exile in India, an enduring sore point between the countries.

China’s foreign ministry said the trip would gravely damage border stability. Kiren Rijiju, India’s junior home minister, responded: “As a free and democratic country, India doesn’t restrict visits by religious leaders to areas that are integral parts of the country.”

The precise location of much of the 2,200-mile India-China boundary, a fourth of which lies in this eastern Indian region, is a subject of dispute. Two weeks ago, not far from the cliff-face road-building venue, Chinese soldiers entered territory India considers its own, Indian officials said. The two sides shoved and jostled for hours until senior commanders intervened. The soldiers didn’t leave until the next day.

To assert its sovereignty and develop Arunachal Pradesh-while strategically significant, it is sparsely populated-the Modi administration awarded $900 million in road contracts in 2016-17, a fivefold jump from the two preceding years. A new government company is acquiring land and hiring private builders to complete 400 miles by 2020.

On top of New Delhi’s construction list is the 34-mile stretch to Taksing, a strategic border village at 8,000 feet above sea level where soldiers rely on helicopters and basket-wielding porters for fuel, eggs, sugar and any other supplies. A government agency headed by a military general is tasked with the job. Helicopter flights into Taksing are waylaid once in every five trips by unpredictable weather, a key reason military planners want a road here. The project’s budget was doubled last year. Its deadline was advanced from 2024 to 2018. India is battling time, nature and geology to get there. The area is so remote, to deliver a bulldozer means dismantling it into nine parts and flying it for 200 miles, piece by piece, slung from a military helicopter.

Tippers, crawlers and excavators are being rushed the same way to a place no electricity line has reached. India’s air force ferried 290 tons of equipment in the year ending with March. Six new bridges have been built. The military restricts access to the region.

Unstable, fragmented rock and six-month monsoons make construction here hazardous. After blasting a craggy mountainside, worker Taji Nacho watched with trepidation for hours as jagged overhangs threatened to break off and fall. Some days, his team progresses just 4 feet. “The mountains here are deceptive, one layer after another,” said Mr. Nacho, 20, who was recently injured by a shard. “You never know what will kill you.”

In November, officials brought 60 trained laborers from a different state. Two months later, the men fled after tribal residents, unhappy about losing jobs, beat and harassed them. These are some of the reasons India long left this region untouched. Another was fear that installing roads would help the Chinese descend into Indian territory.

In 1962, during a brief war, Chinese soldiers charged into Arunachal Pradesh. Near the road-construction site lies a memorial to Indian soldier Shere Thapa, who is believed to have killed many enemy troops.

India changed tack gradually since the 2000s as China went on a border-building spree. A senior official, pointing on a digital map to Chinese roads and townships, said, “Look, what planning, what execution. We have a long way to catch up.”

China has built largely on the Tibetan plateau, in dry weather, without the same bureaucratic obstacles.

On the Indian side, money is short, long spells of rainfall trigger landslides, and local-resident demands and time-consuming environmental clearances have to be addressed. A 12-mile stretch of road built over years fell away when a mountain face collapsed. Plans for another stretch had to be realigned to skirt a wildlife reserve that is home to musk deer.

Officials are holding negotiations with the local Tagin tribe, which claims ancestral ownership of mountains, rivers and trees. Families are being hired in exchange for water from waterfalls and compensated so the government can store construction materials beside rivers. With no road yet, Topak Kemdo began a seven-hour trek on a rainy day last week to deliver a 20-liter can of diesel for troops-enough to run a generator for 10 hours. Mr. Kemdo, 35, faced swaying wood-and-rope bridges, dense vegetation, precipitous drops and the threat of snakes. He crossed dozens of ladders that traversed crevices.

En route, Mr. Kemdo greeted Indian infantrymen returning to their home bases after a border deployment. They had left 28 hours earlier on foot, halting overnight.  “It is very, very difficult,” he said. “We are counting down to when the road is finished.”

News Source - Business Standard

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