Originally Published 2015-02-27 00:00:00 Published on Feb 27, 2015
The military preparedness and security benefits are critical in the North-east region given the long-standing border and territorial issues with China. The government could consider setting up a nodal agency such as a Strategic Border Infrastructure Board under the PMO to oversee projects on a periodic basis.
Need for Strategic Border Infrastructure Board

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week flagged off an air-conditioned express train between Naharlagun, close to Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, and New Delhi, and an inter-city train between Naharlagun and Guwahati. The new connectivity means a lot to the north-eastern region that has remained acutely short of rail and road infrastructure.

Though this year’s railway budget failed to have any special allocation for the north-east except for Meghalaya, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu stated that "Indian Railways is committed to provide rail connectivity to all the North-Eastern states. I am happy to announce that Meghalaya has been brought on the Railway map of India and direct connectivity to Delhi has been provided to Arunachal Pradesh. Further, the Barak Valley will be brought on broad gauge by March this year. The work for connecting the remaining states of this region is progressing well."

Lack of infrastructure has meant under-development of the region and significant deficiencies in the security realm. A well-developed border infrastructure on the other hand brings in multiple benefits - economic and social well being of the local population, as well as security and military preparedness. Better border infrastructure will also strengthen India’s connectivity to Southeast Asia helping New Delhi take forward its Act East Policy.

The military preparedness and security benefits are particularly critical in this region given the long-standing border and territorial issues with India’s eastern neighbour, China. While the region is generally poor in infrastructure, rail infrastructure has been completely absent. There are several critical pending projects that need urgent attention. Given the developmental challenges and the security implications, India cannot afford to take this sector lightly anymore.

Indian Army had made a request for 14 "strategic" lines with particular significance for supplies and troop mobilisation in the case of a conflict but this is yet to see real progress. Since the Modi Government has come into office, there has been some forward movement but the difficulties associated with the region, from terrain to local security issues, have hampered effective implementation. In October last year, the Prime Minister, after a high level meeting in the PMO, decided to move forward with four of the strategic lines requested by the Indian Army. The meeting, which brought together the Planning Commission, Defence, Railways and Finance ministries, asked the Railways to conduct an extensive engineering survey of the region along the four identified railway lines (around 1,000 km) on a priority basis. The cost of the detailed engineering review (estimated to be around INR 200 crore) is being borne by the Defence and Finance ministries. Despite the criticality of these lines, the Railways argued that "the topography and the geology is such that most of the lines are in the fault and folds of the Himalayan range," making the engineering challenges extremely hard. The Railways had experienced similar difficulties when they were doing the tunnel works in Kashmir several years ago. Given these herculean challenges, the survey is expected to take two years, orders to expedite this. The four lines identified by the government are in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, and J & K.

After a gap of nearly 10 years, there is a renewed and fresh thinking on some of the infrastructure projects under the NDA government and this indeed is good news. But there are still questions about who will take responsibility and fund these projects. Given that these railway lines are not likely generate sufficient revenue considering the cost of such projects, there has been some hesitancy on the part of the railways. But since these are critical security necessity, it is important that the defence and finance ministries have more conversations to appreciate the importance of these lines and therefore jointly bear the burden. Hard terrain cannot be an excuse for not building such critical infrastructure. Other countries with difficult terrain challenges have accomplished exceptional rail infrastructure projects, including China’s rail link to Tibet.

This brings to the need for revamping some of the agencies involved in the construction of strategic border infrastructure. While the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) needs to be applauded for their many accomplishments, there is cause to review the state of the department in the light of the current challenges. It is true that there have been interference from various quarters that have hampered the BRO’s work in several states. The state governments in hand with local construction mafias have not been helpful, to say the least. Retaining quality staff within BRO has been an added problem. Short working seasons and dramatic shifts of river flow too have hampered India’s infrastructure projects in the northeast. Dealing with local security problem like terrorism and insurgency has compounded the problem. There have been kidnappings of BRO personnel and destruction of BRO’s machinery and equipment by insurgent groups and terrorists, which have frightened away the private sector from taking up BRO projects in the region.

Additionally, complications around land acquisition and clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests have delayed completion of projects. Also the Inner Line Permit (ILP) issue prevalent in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram is something that needs to be resolved if these states has to see development and progress. Even though the state government relaxed the ILP rules in early 2014 with the rolling of the first passenger train connecting Harmutty (Assam) and Naharlagun, the policy had to be retracted soon thereafter with the locals in Arunachal Pradesh opposing it. The locals fear that with a relaxed ILP policy (instead of obtaining ILP, the new policy considered train reservations as sufficient for travel into Arunachal Pradesh) would threaten their "indigenous identity" with "massive ingress of non-indigenous Arunchalees entering the state." The Central Government must sit with the state government and different ethnic groups to review the ILP policy, which is a leftover from the British colonial times.

There are complex problems involved in the completion of the border infrastructure projects and these require innovative solutions. There also has to be greater accountability and periodic monitoring. The government could also consider setting up a nodal agency such as a Strategic Border Infrastructure Board under the PMO to oversee projects on a periodic basis. Institutional rethinking might be necessary if these important projects are to be completed.

(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. She served at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India from 2003 to 2007.)

1Inner Line Permit is a policy brought about by the British under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations Act, 1873 in order to restrict the entry of non-indigenous people in the tribal hill areas of the north-east without a special permit. The permit policy is currently followed in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. Similar policy restrictions were in place in Leh district in J & K however such a requirement has been removed from May 2014. For details, see "No need for ’Inner Line Permit’ for domestic tourists visiting Leh," Hindustan Times, May 14, 2014, http://www.hindustantimes.com/jandk/no-need-for-inner-line-permit-for-domestic-tourists-visiting-leh/article1-1219207.aspx.

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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