The Indian government is considering constructing a massive $6-billion highway across its border with China in the North-East. This Frontier Highway project that focuses on making the area flanking the Indo-China border accessible by motorable roads may be crucial to India’s deterrence plans vis-a-vis China, but the road seems to be a rough one.
The silence of the lofty Himalayas is broken by the periodic sound of dynamite charges. Mountain walls come down in a hail of boulders and pebbles, bulldozers work through the cold of the night.
Tawang is the centre point in a longstanding international border dispute between India and China. The town, home to a 400-year-old Buddhist monastery and heavy Indian military presence, falls in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The state is roughly the size of Austria and sits on India’s border with China to its northeast.
China claims parts of the state as its own. Beijing calls Arunachal ‘South Tibet’. For long, Indian authorities have neglected infrastructure work here. But now, work to build a two-lane and over-1500-km-long Trans-Arunachal Highway is on. The Indian authorities hope to not just mark their territory here conclusively by building the highway, but also by settling Indian nationals for whom the terrain has been inaccessible so far.
Heavy rains in Khonsa, another town in the state, have further complicated Kanwal Singh's task. Singh is the site manager, responsible for work on a 42-kilometre-long stretch of the grand project. Heavy rains and landslides have hampered movement of machinery. Work has come to a screeching halt. It will take roughly three years to complete this stretch. Once the entire project is completed, the Trans-Arunachal Highway will connect eleven major districts of the state with each other.
However, in 2018, India gears up to launch another more ambitious project and one with a strict strategic focus. The proposed 2000-km-long Frontier Highway would run from Mago-Thingbu near Tawang in the east to Vijaynagar in the west along the border. The approximately $6.5-billion highway will run along the McMahon Line, a line that separates India's border with China. Indian observer Sanjoy Hazarika says, "As the strategic interests of the Indian state are concerned, it is an assertion of its rights on Arunachal vis-a-vis China's claims."
Not only will the project cost a bomb but it comes with strategic and economic ramifications that can not be overlooked. "China’s official position on Arunachal Pradesh has been clear, it is a part of China. Beijing claims the entire state but the Tawang tract is the crucial one with regard to India-China border dispute in the eastern sector," Dr Lu Yang, postdoctoral fellow at Tsinghua University tells WIONews.
Hazarika believes that though the construction of the Frontier Highway will help India secure its northeastern border, in the long-run, economic significance will play a larger part. Also, the complex history of the region is sure to make its effect felt.
In 1914, at a convention aimed to settle border disputes between the then British Indian government and China, British chief negotiator Sir Henry McMahon drew a line with a red-marker to delineate the Tibet-India border. Tawang was considered Tibetan territory at the time. It was not until 1951 that the Buddhist town was officially taken over by India. In 1962, tensions peaked between India and China over the disputed border. In fact, Tawang was a flash point in the 1962 Sino-India war.
"This highway is India's way of making a point that Tawang is an integral part of India. China, it has to be kept in mind, claims not just Tawang but the entire state," says Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Free Press, an Indian daily.
There is an air of ambiguity about what's being touted as India's biggest infrastructure project. The idea to construct the highway was conceived way back in 2008. About two years back, Kiren Rijiju, an Indian minister who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, had rallied behind the massive infrastructure project. But today, the enthusiasm seems to be fading. New Delhi is tight-lipped about the status of the project. Ramnganing Muivah, secretary of the North Eastern Council, a body set up by India to monitor and ensure development of the country’s northeastern part, said he had no idea about the Frontier Highway project.
Many experts think the project is unrealistic and impractical. They question the real need to construct such a long highway to repopulate isolated villages along the international border. Arunachal already has a road network that links almost all of its districts and covers nearly every village. So, they think it makes more sense to invest in bettering the existing roads and build more schools and hospitals. Tongam Rina, a prominent journalist based in Itanagar, the state capital of Arunachal Pradesh, calls the project 'extremely ambitious'. "You do not need roads and highways to repopulate areas," she feels. Rina says while roads have been laid in the interiors, progress on the ongoing Trans-Arunachal Project has been slow. Highlighting the plight of local villagers, Hazarika thinks building schools and hospitals in Arunachal Pradesh should be the priority. "There is no medical college in the state. Locals have to travel all the way to neighbouring Assam to get proper medical attention," he says.
Finance is another grey area. Who will foot the $6.5-billion bill? "The Indian economy lacks depth,” Hazarika is blunt. China has, in the meantime, pumped in billions over the years to build an impressive road and rail network on its side, he says. It is highly unlikely that international funders like the World Bank or Asian Development Bank would be willing to invest in what the world sees as a “troublesome territory”, Hazarika feels.
The other way is to turn to private investors. But even that is a difficult path. Another project underway in this region with help from Japan is already facing executional roadblocks. Rina is sceptical if private investors can be lured in. "Arunachal has a record of not utilising funds," she points out.
The more pressing issue seems to be the dismal state of existing roads in the state. Just the cost of repairs would run into millions of dollars. Rina thinks, "It's not that the government does not allocate enough funds. Due to corruption, the money is not utilised in the right place."
Arunachal falls in category five seismic zone. This means the state is extremely vulnerable to the risk of high-intensity earthquakes. When you are building roads, this is a point that can’t be discounted.
In January this year, the state’s governor J.P. Rajkhowa called for speedy execution of the Frontier Highway project. Speaking to the Indian daily, The Indian Express, he said, “The pace of implementation of these road projects needs to be expedited, for which, I urge upon the people and the government to sort out the issues of land acquisition, forest clearances, logistic support, security and law and order on top priority basis.”
The Frontier Highway Project may be crucial to India’s deterrence plans vis-a-vis China. It may also provide necessary boost to the economy of Arunachal Pradesh. But the road seems to be a rough one.