The way Indian security forces have responded to Chinese belligerence in Eastern Ladakh has caught China by surprise. This is being labelled as the rise of a new India which doesn’t care for Chinese sentiments or hegemony. But what many analysts are missing is the role that India’s brand-new and robust road network along the Sino-India border had to play in the ongoing military stand-off.
India’s road construction projects along the Sino-India border were moving at a very slow pace during the UPA era. However, construction of such strategic roads have picked up pace with the Modi government at the helm of affairs. The latest example being the Nimmu-Padam-Darcha road. The Border Road Organisation (BRO) has reportedly neared completion of this crucial road project.
Also known as the third road, the Nimmu-Padam-Darcha road gives the Indian troops a huge advantage as it will remain untraceable for India’s neighbours- Pakistan and China. This road offers a quicker and safer alternative to the other two routes to Leh- the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh and Manali Sarchu-Leh roads. These two roads are located in close proximity to India’s de facto Pakistan and Tibet borders making them susceptible to enemy observation and shelling.
Once operational, the travel time between Manali and Leh will be cut down from the present 12-14 hours to 6-7 hours. Moreover, the Nimmu-Padam-Darcha road will be an all-weather road that can operate throughout the year, as opposed to the other two road routes to Ladakh that are open for only 6-7 months and get shut in November due to heavy snowfall.
This is particularly important as the winter months cut off logistical supplies and troop movement to the forward locations to Ladakh during winter months. But with a new strategic road allowing Indian troops to access Ladakh even during winter months. Now, India enjoys a strategic advantage over the Chinese PLA even during the winter season.
India has first-hand experience of how susceptible road routes for military troops to Ladakh can adversely affect national security. During the 1999 Kargil war, Pakistan had relentlessly targeted the Srinagar-Leh highway in a vile attempt to block India’s troops and logistical movements between Srinagar and Ladakh, from the high peaks that Pakistan Army had occupied.
It was after the Kargil war itself that the Nimmu-Padam-Darcha road got conceptualised as a third route for ensuring safe connectivity to Leh. The Vajpayee government had itself completed all formalities for this road, whereby construction on the route had to start in 2004 and completed by 2007. But the project didn’t make much progress in the next ten years whilst the UPA was in power.
But the Nimmu-Padam-Darcha road is hardly the only project along the China border which picked up pace only after the Modi government came into power. Also take the 8.8 kilometre-long Rohtang tunnel, for example, which will connect Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh, reducing the distance between the two by 46 kilometres.
The tunnel project was planned by former Prime Minister, late Atal Bihari Vajpayee in June 2000, again in the aftermath of the Kargil war in 1999. However, the project went into hibernation after the UPA government came to power in 2004. Zanskar Councillor Lapka had recently said, “The construction of the Leh-Manali road, which is of great importance in terms of national security, was delayed in the UPA government. From 2004 to 2014, no work was done on any important road, clearly indicating that the Congress showed negligence in the construction of Leh-Manali road, which was to be completed in 2007. The Vajpayee government had approved the Leh-Manali road project,” while referring to the 8.8 km long tunnel.
The Rohtang tunnel has been completed only during the Modi government’s tenure. It is now going to reduce the chances of snowfall cutting off the strategic road link. The tunnel offers all-weather connectivity at a high-altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) above sea level.
Even in case of the 73 strategic roads cleared in 2006 during the UPA era itself, the Border Road Organisation (BRO) completed only 19 roads out of the 61 such roads allocated to it, that is, 625 out of 3,409 kilometres. By February 2019 however, the construction process was accelerated and a total of 2,350 km roads were built. India is now pushing to complete the 61 roads to be built by BRO by 2022.
By completing such crucial projects, the Modi government helps the Indian armed forces mobilise more quickly, more heavily and without getting surveilled by the Chinese or Pakistani military establishment. These projects are a part of the Modi government’s counter-measures against China, especially when it comes during an ongoing stand-off between the Indian Army and the PLA. If the ongoing stand-off extends into winter months, India will have the option of sending in more troops and taking China by surprise instead of mirroring Chinese deployments.
Modi government is realising that border road construction is as important as soldier strength and mobilisation of defence equipment, especially when it comes to confronting the Salami-slicing tactics of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Prime Minister Modi is progressively correcting the legacy of complacency in developing road infrastructure along the Sino-India border. This becomes the deciding factor as China and India face off at the LAC in Eastern Ladakh, as the Indian armed forces now enjoy the capability of reaching the LAC in higher strength, at a faster pace and for the longer part of a year, including the winter months.