The breathtakingly beautiful 257 km of highway running all the way from Bhalukpong to Bum La in Arunchal Pradesh, where India shares its border with the People’s Republic of China, is dotted with JCB excavators and other machines, abandoned road-building equipment and condemned vehicles. Workmen break stone for road-metalling and pile it in heaps. Also strung along the highway are posts manned by Border Roads Organisation (BRO) personnel and many key units of the army. NH-13, running from Bhalukpong to Tawang, is the lifeline for not only the defence forces but also the people of the West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh. Stationed in the state are at least two divisions—some 50,000 officers and soldiers—of the army.
It was this broken-down highway the Chinese used in the 1962 war to reach all the way down to Tezpur in Assam. This strategic consideration—or compulsion—drove the BRO’s ‘Op Priority Roads’, under which upgradation was taken up in 1999 as Project Vartak. “Strategically, this is one of the most important roads,” says Ajai Shukla, a former colonel, now a defence analyst. “Our supplies are all transported on the same route. Undoubtedly, this is one of our most important roads.”
During his 2008 visit to Arunachal Pradesh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said, “The sun kisses India first in Arunachal Pradesh. It is our ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. A new dawn of progress and prosperity is about to break out in this beautiful state.” He then announced a Rs 1,452-crore package for the state. A substantial part was meant for upgrading the single-lane highway cutting through West Kameng and Tawang right up to Bum La, more than 15,000 feet above sea level. As part of India’s plans to shore up defences along the boundary with China, the BRO has been entrusted with several important road projects, including 73 strategic road projects in the Northeast, besides what’s covered in the PM’s package for Arunachal.
As Outlook travelled along the route the Chinese intrusion took in 1962, we found that in these parts, distances are measured in hours, not kilometres. Locals are up in arms against the BRO for delays in road projects; defence personnel posted here have to bear the journeys with a grin. Road and weather conditions in this Himalayan region are such that every day is a challenge for the army’s drivers. The terrain is mountainous, green and wet with rain and mountain streams on our side. And there are five mountain ranges to cross before reaching Bum La. “There are regular war games and exercises, and we have to ferry men and equipment to the locations,” says Naik Ram Singh. “There are times it’s impossible to drive the truck at even one kmph!” A major from the engineering corps complains, “Normally, it’s rare for chassis of heavy-duty vehicles to break. Here, it’s a common occurence. The other problem is fuel loss.” What’s worrying, army personnel say, is that no truck or heavy vehicle can ply the 30-km last leg to Bum La. “The roads are not designed well—even if it’s a two-laner, the bends are extremely risky for heavy vehicles,” says the major.
Former army officer and defence analyst Maroof Raza says, “One of the lessons to learn from the 1962 debacle is to secure our northeastern frontiers, but these dilapidated roads show how much we have learnt! The army’s problem is that, even if it wants to improve the roads, it can only make a request. Our men can’t just pick up the tools and build it themselves.”
Right on the border, a jawan manning ‘Heap of Stones’—which is what the Bum La post is, stones put together by officers of the Indian and Chinese armies—sits with his buddy, maintaining constant vigil through powerful binoculars, observing a post some 5 km inside Chinese territory. While Indian troops are present right at the border, Chinese posts and communications centres are about 5 km behind the borderline. It’s dry grey-brown plateau across the border. “There’s been no tension or incursion in recent times. Our unit officers are always posted in rotation because the roads are not easy. We stay up here in batches,” says one of the jawans on duty. Navigating 40 km of the ‘Class-9’ road from Tawang to Bum La takes over three hours. The blacktop width is supposed to be 16 metres—but there’s no blacktop, and the road is barely wide enough for a jeep to pass. “It’s relatively easier for the Chinese to build a good road and high-end infrastructure because they have the advantage of easy terrain. Twenty kilometres from the border, they have a plateau, while we have a very wet, hilly, difficult terrain. They have a year-long working season, while we have only a few months. Yes, the roads are narrow. But now at least they are motorable. And that’s a positive,” says Shukla.
But for local drivers, this is not enough. On September this year, hundreds of members of the West Kameng and Tawang units of the All-Arunachal Pradesh Public Transport Federation, along with students unions, taxi unions and social organisations, staged a dharna at several BRO offices. This was followed by a 12-hour bandh. The federation is demanding “systematic road-broadening work” and timely completion of the Balipara-Bomdi La-Tawang road. Several memorandums have been submitted by the district administrations, panchayats and the transport federation. “It is high time the BRO completed the widening of road and created a motorable road. It has been more than 12 years and the roads have become worse than what they were 12 years ago,”says Lobsang Chodup, president of the Tawang unit of the transport federation. Thousands of vehicles have ended up in garages with damaged engines, broken gearboxes, and hole-ridden chambers because of the unsystematic manner in which work is being undertaken by the BRO. According to data collated by the federation, at last count, 106 persons had died in 127 accidents on the Bhalukpong-Bomdi La-Se La stretch, while 237 others were seriously injured on non-motorable stretches of the road. Bomdi La is some 7,700 feet above sea level, and rescue and road-clearing efforts can be dangerous even when there’s no work on. “Earlier, when it was a single-lane highway, we used to cover the distance from Tawang to Tezpur in 7-8 hours. Ever since this construction has begun, we have no option but to stop overnight at Bomdi La,” says Lalit Tamang, who has been ferrying locals and tourists since 2000. R. Dasgupta, Lalit’s friend and fellow driver, who also works for the army on contract, says, “We live on these roads. I learnt how to drive on this very route. In the name of developing the route, if this is what we have to bear, we were better off underdeveloped. At least we could take more trips and make more money.”
Kemo Lollen, deputy commissioner of Tawang, says, “Don’t construct a road in theory. There needs to be action. We are feeling quite helpless. We have been having regular coordination meetings with the border roads task forces (BRTFS), but I don’t think they can do any better. They’ll continue in their style, nothing will change.” In one of the replies to the deputy commissioner of Tawang, a copy of which is with Outlook, the chief engineer of Project Vartak concedes that “the present condition of the road between Bhalukpong-Balipara-Senge-Se La stretches are poor and causing inconvenience to the users”. The BRO blames the delay on non-settlement of land acquisition and compensation cases, peculiar weather and terrain, shortage of construction material and labour—and lastly, the attitude of locals and the civilian authorities. Outlook accessed the file of the communication between the BRO and the district administration: to all the memorandums, resolutions, complaints and reminders, the BRO has almost identical replies. “The problem is the haphazard manner—and not the fact that it’s getting delayed. Instead of undertaking cutting for the entire route all at the same time, why can’t the BRO develop the road in a phased manner?” asks Choumbey Kee, a leading youth activist of Tawang. He is also questioning the labour shortage cited by the BRO. “If that was the case, then why did they fire nearly 1,000 mostly Arunachali labourers?” asks Kee.
Asked about the roads here, army chief Gen Bikram Singh had said at a recent interaction with the press: “Yes, infrastructure and road conditions are a concern. The BRO is at it and they are improving.” Is the army satisfied? To that, the chief says, “We will never say ‘No’ to more.”
(The names of serving army personnel appearing in this piece have been changed on request.)
By Toral Varia Deshpande, on the road from Tezpur to Bum La