One important point that emerged on Friday from the all-party meeting on the Galwan valley clash was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to continue building infrastructure in the border areas. Modi made it amply clear that India is no pushover and can give a reply in equal measure as and when needed, and will continue with its development activities in the region despite Chinese misadventures. This point has undeservedly received less attention given how prior to Modi, there was an unforgivable neglect of infrastructure in the border areas as part of a military strategy against the Chinese.
Not developing infrastructure in border areas a sign of timidity
Former Defence Minister AK Antony had done a huge favour to India by revealing the bizarre lesson successive Congress administrations took from the humiliation of 1962. Not developing the border was seen as “the best defence”, as an “undeveloped border is more safe than developed border”.
The cost of this mistake was visible in 2007 itself to Antony who was attending a ceremony at Nathu La in Sikkim along the border – there was nothing for a road on the Indian side, while the Chinese side had an all-weather road ending right at the border.
The yawning gap, however, kept increasing despite the belated realisation. This further emboldened Chinese troops to object to any such measures, which has long been part of their strategy of land grab for deliberately changing the ground level status quo. Despite the awareness, little was done to change this scenario. Lack of infrastructure also made it difficult for armed forces to secure positions or even expect backups, as seen in the 2013 Daulat Beg Oldie incident. Further, efforts to block infrastructure development in frontline areas were stalled under the pretext of various reasons.
India changes status quo, rattling the Chinese
The Modi government after coming to power sought a fresh start to relations with China. However, India has not been a one-trick pony – if anything, the 2017 Doklam standoff made it amply clear to the Chinese that they were dealing with a different India.
This boldness, again on display in the past few days, has been enabled by focused decision-making. After coming to power, one of earliest decisions of the Modi government was to issue a general approval in July 2014, enabling the creation of road network by Border Roads Organisation (BRO) within 100 km of aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Further extending this approval to all border security-related infrastructure gave rapid momentum to work on the border. Also, delegation of powers downwards of DG, BRO, cleared the way for constructing 66 operationally critical Indo-China Border Roads.
To further enable swift development of infrastructure, the BRO undertook massive procurement of necessary equipment over the past three years. Airlifting of construction equipment and material was significantly enhanced from 2017 onward. Aided by a surge in budgetary allocations, there has been rapid progress in completion of roads, bridges and tunnels, effectively rattling the Chinese troops. Contrast this with the 1986 Sumdorong Chu incident where General Krishnaswamy Sundarji had to airlift troops and one realises how much water has flown under the bridge since.
Numbers don’t lie – India now stares down on China at Galwan
While just one tunnel was built in the region during 2008-2014, six have been completed since, while another 19 are being planned. India doubled the number of bridges completed, clocking 14,450 m in 20014-2020 compared to 7,270 m in 2008-2014. With formation cutting increasing from 230 km/year (2008-2017) to 470 km/year (2017-2020) and road surfacing picking steam (380 km/year in 2017-2020 against 170 km/year in 2008-2017), one sees the Modi government putting its money where its mouth is. As a result, compared to 3,610 km in 2008-2014, 4,764 km of road was constructed between 2014-2020.
Rapid infrastructure development is now aiding our troops to undertake more frequent border area patrols and rapidly deploy backup if any conflict escalates. Evidence can be seen in the frequent face-offs in certain sensitive areas in eastern Ladakh over the past three years, discomfiting China. More frequent face-offs are not necessarily a sign of weakness or bad relations, but indicate a greater ability on the Indian Army’s part to monitor, detect and respond to PLA patrolling.
As infrastructure keeps improving, these possibilities will only increase. The Chinese forces have wanted to arm-twist India to stop building a critical bridge in the Galwan valley. However, India has displayed nerves of steel and completed the bridge, providing our troops major advantages of access and easier military mobilisation. With this, a clear message has gone to the belligerent Chinese -- this is a different India that is dealing with them. This India is no pushover, and will do all it takes to protect its rightful sovereign interests at any cost.
(The author is a public policy professional and research head of a Delhi-based think tank. Views are personal.)