Shimla: Himachal Pradesh has drawn up an advanced multi-sector plan to pre-empt any “mischief” along the state’s 240-km border with China, after witnessing the ongoing standoff along the Line of Actual Control in neighbouring Ladakh as well as the Galwan Valley clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers nearly two months ago.
The initiative for the plan came from Governor Bandaru Dattatreya. It has been drawn up by Director General of Police Sanjay Kundu, and submitted to Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh by the Raj Bhavan, with approval from the state government headed by Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur.
The defence ministry has been asked to take immediate steps to counter Chinese plans, and also undertake confidence building measures for the local population in the two border districts of Kinnaur (36 border villages) and Lahaul-Spiti (12 villages).
The plan features 12 ‘high points’, including urgent training for Indo-Tibetan Border Police and state intelligence personnel in basic Chinese and Tibetan languages, as well as guerrilla warfare training to local tribal populations highlighting that central paramilitary forces like the Sashastra Seema Bal imparted weapons training prior to 2001.
The state has also sought upgrade of the road infrastructure, installation of a robust communication network, building of airstrips and advanced landing facilities for helicopters, setting up of a counter-espionage system, and finalisation of an evacuation plan.
Presentations before governor and cabinet
DGP Kundu, an IPS officer who has previously worked with the United Nations, told ThePrint that the plan has been formulated on the basis of a ground study in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti.
“Five IPS officers — all commandants of different police battalions — camped in the border villages for 10 days and got inputs from locals,” Kundu said.
The idea to send the team came from Governor Dattatreya, and so, the DGP culled out the basic points from the fact-finding mission and made a presentation to the Raj Bhavan as well as the state cabinet.
Himachal Chief Secretary Anil Khachi told ThePrint: “The state government is definitely proactive in taking certain steps in the border areas of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti. Some initiatives like improving road infrastructure and confidence-building measures are already under way at our own level. There are matters like strengthening of telecom network, defence ministry matters etc., which we have taken up with the central government ministries.”
What China has been up to near Himachal
According to Kundu, the plan has also been presented to the National Security Advisor, who has been briefed about the police team’s visit to the border villages. The NSA has asked other states sharing borders with China to replicate the move so any potential mischief can be countered.
China has already built highways and cemented roads in its territory and installed high frequency communication devices near the border. It has increased its army’s presence near the border with Himachal Pradesh, leading to calls for similar steps on the Indian side. One such suggestion was made to the police team by a local panchayat pradhan at Pooh in Kinnaur district.
Last week, Himachal Pradesh Congress chief Kuldeep Rathore drew CM Thakur’s attention to reports relating to the construction of a road by China close to the border in Kinnaur, which was flagged by residents of Kunnu Charan village.
The villagers, Rathore said, had also shared video footage showing deployment of heavy construction machinery by China on the other side of the border. The construction of new roads and highways by China was also confirmed by DGP Kundu.
Three battalions of the ITBP are maintaining constant vigil along the border. In fact, after the Galwan incident, the ITBP had mobilised additional forces to Himachal from Ladakh.
Kinnaur had reported two air violations in April 2020, just before the troop build-up at the LAC in Ladakh began, said the DGP. Chinese helicopters had entered Indian airspace and stayed for a while on 11 and 20 April.
After the presentation at Raj Bhavan, Governor Dattatreya wrote to Rajnath Singh, asking for the army infantry unit close to the China border to be upgraded, and suggesting that other strategic measures be taken up without delay.
“I request you to install and operationalise dependable and robust telecommunication network in the border villages and to make adequate arrangements to track movement of drones from the Chinese side. The air defence assets need to be positioned at appropriate locations to prevent violation of Indian air space,” Dattatreya wrote.
Two airstrips have already been sanctioned, for which environmental clearance is still awaited. However, the plan suggests there is an urgent need for more airstrips in the Spiti Valley for prompt deployment of forces to the forward areas in case of emergency. These can act as an advanced landing facility.
“A strong suggestion has been made for gearing up central intelligence agencies, increasing and strengthening Army establishments and the ITBP, and creating a counter-espionage unit with the locals. This is required as a morale and confidence-building act, apart from meeting any unforeseen incident of intrusion by China,” DGP Kundu said.
Issues related to the strengthening of the intelligence network have also been raised, especially after the proposed opening of the tunnel under the Rohtang pass between the Kullu and Lahaul-Spiti districts. The 8.8-km-long horseshoe-shaped tunnel, named after late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is set to be inaugurated by PM Narendra Modi in September this year, providing all-weather connectivity to Lahaul-Spiti. It is expected to become an alternate route for movement of the forces to Ladakh, adding to its strategic importance.
Hishey Negi, a youth leader and president of the Kinnaur India-China trade association, said: “The people want necessary training in handling weapons, collecting intelligence and upgradation of communication — both mobile and surface connectivity.”
Depopulation of villages
One of the biggest concerns highlighted by the police team that visited Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti is the depopulation of villages. The 2011 Census showed a 5 per cent drop in Spiti’s population, and there are fears that this trend could grow in Census 2021. A similar trend has been observed in Kinnaur.
“The teams noticed that younger people have moved out of the villages, and only elder people are left behind. This could eventually end up in the complete disappearance of the population in the next few years, and then China can come and occupy such non-inhabited villages,” DGP Kundu said.
Hishey Negi, too, admitted that the trend was a concern, but said it was due to lack of proper education and health infrastructure for the villagers.
“In my own case, my wife will move to Chandigarh for getting my child admitted to a good school there. If the government opens CBSE schools with proper hostel facilities, why would anyone send their kids Chandigarh or elsewhere?” he said. “Secondly, the health infrastructure is very poor. The government must address these two issues to stop migration of people.”
But the police team has proposed creating economic activities at local level, like harnessing potential of herbs like sea buckthorn and the tiger lily flower.