Mega Road Project Along The Chinese Frontier
rAnI pathak das
senior research associate, CDPS

The Government of India’s recent move to take up an ambitious road project along the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh holds a two-fold strategy. When the plan could be a befitting response to the already spread Chinese road and rail network near the border, India aims to construct a “seamless travel from one part of the state to another”. This plan of the road project along the disputed border with China has already prompted concerns from Beijing. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said Beijing hoped India "will not take any actions that may further complicate the situation". On the other side, India declared that the country has freedom to carry out development works inside its own territory and other nations should not object to it. To boost road construction in the Northeast, the Narendra Modi Government has announced its plan to set up a Special Corporation soon. In September this year, the Union minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari said the body will have its headquarters in Guwahati and execute road construction works for the entire region.

Roads are not simply symbol of connectivity—they can be instruments of development of a region. Better road network in a conflict area can well contribute to improve the security of the land and its people. In the Northeast of India, with its hilly areas, road is a very important mode of travel as the other modes of travel are either too expensive, or difficult. However, in spite of its advantageous strategic location, with access to the traditional domestic market of eastern India, along with proximity to adjacent countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal and being the entry point for the South-East Asian markets, this resource-rich region has been experiencing a comparatively slower pace of industrialisation and socio-economic growth. In this context, Government of India’s initiatives to develop road infrastructure in the region has much significance in terms of not only connectivity, but from the development and security points of view.

As stated by the Indian Home Ministry on 15 October 2014, the proposed Indo-China Frontier Highway aims to cut through 1,800 kms (1,118 miles) long mountainous terrain in Arunachal Pradesh and construction is expected to begin soon. The proposed highway will pass through Tawang, East Kameng, Upper Subansiri, West Siang, Upper Siang, Dibang Valley, Desali, Chaglagam, Kibito, Dong, Hawai and Vijaynagar in bordering areas of Arunachal Pradesh. Terming the road as the "biggest single infrastructure project in the history of India", Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju said poor roads connecting northeastern states to the rest of India was a major reason behind launching the project that is estimated at Rs 40,000 crore (US$6.5 billion).

The Government seems to be on a fast track mode as groundwork on the project has already begun. On 17 October 2014, Rijiju said at a two-day Northeastern Region infrastructure Conclave 2014 at Guwahati: “We have to develop our territories, especially those areas which are being neglected for too long. …We have freedom to do (anything) inside our territory. Other countries should not have any objection when we are not doing anything harmful to them”. The government has already relaxed environmental clearances for border area projects, the Home Ministry has asked the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to prepare a detailed project report and submit it at the earliest. The report will include the cost and other financial implications of the project. The project will be monitored by the Union Home Ministry. In September 2014, India eased curbs on building roads and military facilities within 100 km of the contested border in Arunachal Pradesh in order to hasten construction of about 6,000 km roads. At the same time, an industrial corridor in Arunachal Pradesh is also being planned by the Centre.

However, the first step in this direction was taken on 31 January 2008 by the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He announced a Rs 5500 crore mega road infrastructure development programme that envisaged the construction as well as development of the existing infrastructure into a two-lane Trans-Arunachal Highway from Tawang in the western part of Arunachal Pradesh to Kanubari in the east covering 1839 Kms. Of this, 832 Km falls on radial roads and 1007 Km is the missing gap. The missing link of 1007 Kms will facilitate inter-district movement as well as direct access to state capital Itanagar without detouring Assam. The Highway will interlink eleven district headquarters while the remaining five districts and the state capital will be connected to the Trans-Arunachal Highway by link roads. The highway comprises National Highways namely NH- 229 from Tawang to Pasighat, NH 52 from Pasighat to Mahadevpur, NH -52B from Mahadevpur to Kanubari, NH-153 from Jairampur to Pansau-Pass and 4-Laning from Holongi to Itanagar. India has completed just a tenth of this 2,400-km highway to link the middle portion of the sprawling state. According to an Arunachal Pradesh government official, some parts of this project will overlap with the new proposed road project.

In September 2014, DONER (Development Of North East Region) Minister Gen (Retd.) VK Singh said that the Central Government needs to give road construction a new direction adding that the trans-Arunachal highway will be completed as soon as possible. He also said that India would build a bridge on the Feni river in southern Tripura to get access to the Chittagong port in Bangladesh for carrying goods and heavy machinery for the land-locked Northeast.

The land-locked region, with its eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh sharing 1,126 km of its international border with China, has always been considered by the Chinese as a “disputed territory” with their claims over it. Insurgency and unrest also pose as obstacle to development activities in many parts of the region. The region has the highest number of insurgent groups and students’ organizations in the country fighting for identity of autonomy. According to the NHAI officials, the trouble in the region has held back a number of projects and addition of roads are negligible as compared to the plans set by the Ministry.

The present move of the Central Government has come in the backdrop of the recent visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in September this year. The visit was intended to reset diplomatic ties between the two powers after formation of a new Government in India. The visit, however, was overshadowed by a Chinese troop standoff. Hundreds of Chinese troops had allegedly ventured into territory claimed by India in a disputed area of mountainous northern Ladakh region. The two armies had mobilised about 1,000 soldiers each in Ladakh, each accusing the other of building military infrastructure in violation of a pact to maintain peace until a resolution of the 52-year territorial row. The troops eventually pulled back.

China has sharply reacted to India’s plan of building a highway along the border. China disputes the entire territory of Arunachal Pradesh, calling it south Tibet, especially Tawang, a key site for Tibetan Buddhism. The historic town briefly fell into Chinese hands during the 1962 war before Beijing retreated. Reacting to this mega road plan, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the border issue between China and India is a problem left over by the colonial past. “Both China and India need to work together to solve this problem". The border has remained unresolved, despite several rounds of talks. Following the fighting in 1962, the two armies have not even agreed on where the Line of Actual Control or the ceasefire line lies. With such a background, the proposed Indo-China Frontier Highway could have meaningful and multi dimensional impact on the security and development of the country.

(Courtesy: The Assam Tribune)

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