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How Arunachal is front & centre in Modi govt’s massive border infra push to counter China

Of total highway projects worth Rs 1.6 lakh cr announced for Northeast last month, Arunachal got the lion’s share. Meanwhile, BRO’s outlay also saw a significant jump this year.

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New Delhi: As work begins on the ambitious Arunachal Frontier Highway, some of India’s other key projects in the Northeast — especially Arunachal Pradesh — are nearing completion while some others, such as a proposed tunnel under the Brahmaputra river, are in the final stages of completion.

In a turnaround from its decades-old policy of being wary of strengthening road connectivity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for fear of Chinese aggression, India is now in the middle of a massive border infrastructure push.

Given the ongoing standoff with China in eastern Ladakh, the government has ramped up the speed at which border infrastructure is being created.

“There has been a lot of push on the infrastructure development along the LAC, especially in the Northeast. The idea is to fast-track the ongoing projects and initiate new ones. Such has been the focus that the budget for Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has seen a significant jump,” an official source told ThePrint. 

Incidentally, of the total number of highway projects worth Rs 1.6 lakh crore announced by the central government for the Northeast earlier this month, Arunachal Pradesh got the lion’s share of the works, amounting to Rs 44,000 crore.

The push to develop border infrastructure began under the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government but it was under the Modi government that the work picked up.

According to data from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, from a mere 0.6 km of national highways built a day during the UPA era (2009-14), road construction more than doubled during the NDA regime, touching an all-time high of 1.5 km a day between 2014 and March 2019.

Together, different central government agencies, including the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the BRO, have built 2,731 km of national highways across the eight Northeastern states between 2014 and 2019.

In the Union Budget 2022-23, BRO’s capital outlay rose by a record 40 per cent to Rs 3,500 crore compared to Rs 2,500 crore in FY 2021-22. 

In 2021, BRO completed 102 roads and bridges at various places in the north-western and eastern states — including the world’s highest motorable road at Umling La at 19,024 feet.

The BRO has inducted heavy excavators, spider excavators, and lightweight crawler rock drills, besides other equipment, to fast-track the projects, officials said.

According to the government, the BRO has built 2,089 km of roads along the LAC in the past five years. 

Sources said that the emphasis of the Modi government on border infrastructure is visible from the fact that one of the first things it did after coming to power in 2014 was to set up the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL).

This new organisation was given the mandate to construct highways in the Northeast and hilly areas of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, which was previously mainly done by the NHAI and BRO directly.

NHIDCL, being a separate wing of the road ministry to focus on the Northeast, has helped expedite project completion, sources had told ThePrint earlier.

Also Read: ‘Stable but unpredictable’ border with China is a real risk. India needs a new game plan

What’s in the works

Parliamentary documents show that the central government has sanctioned 2,319 km long roads to be built under the “Arunachal Pradesh package of roads”. Of this, contracts for constructing 1,191 km long roads have been awarded 1,150 km of this has already been completed.

As of February this year, 35 works amounting to Rs 14,032 crore are in progress in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. 

The showpiece project that’s nearing completion is the Sela Tunnel project in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Initiated in 2018 and scheduled to be completed by April next year, the Sela tunnel is touted to be the world’s longest bi-lane tunnel above the height of 13,000 feet.

Work ongoing at the under-construction Sela Tunnel in Arunachal Pradesh. | Photo: Nirmal Poddar/ThePrint
Work ongoing at the under-construction Sela Tunnel in Arunachal Pradesh in 2021 | Photo: Nirmal Poddar/ThePrint

This strategic project along with Nechiphu tunnel on the 317-km long Balipara-Charduar-Tawang (BCT) road that leads to West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh will ensure that both defence and private vehicles will have all-year mobility.

The project, which has main and escape tunnels of 1,555 metres long each, besides a shorter tunnel of 980 m and about 1.2 km of road, will ensure that the Chinese are not able to monitor traffic movement in the area. 

The Nechiphu tunnel, 2021. The Modi government is strongly pushing infrastructure build up in the Northeast, especially in Arunachal Pradesh | Credit: Snehesh Alex Philip, ThePrint
The Nechiphu tunnel, 2021. The Modi government is strongly pushing infrastructure build up in the Northeast, especially in Arunachal Pradesh | Credit: Snehesh Alex Philip, ThePrint

The Sela Pass, at 13,700 feet, is currently visible to the Chinese.

Besides these, official sources told ThePrint that all bridges along the LAC are being upgraded to the standard of the new ones being built.

This means that all bridges will be of Class 70, allowing them to withstand the movement of heavy vehicles.  

In addition, the government is building a large number of underground munition depots in the Northeast besides plans to set up special 3D-printed permanent defences.

After the 2020 Sino-Indian clashes at Galwan in eastern Ladakh, the central government had sanctioned 32 roads along the LAC as part of the second phase of the Indo-China Border Roads project, which was approved in September 2020.

Improving connectivity for military & civilians 

As reported by ThePrint earlier, the Narendra Modi government has initiated work on the Arunachal Frontier Highway, one of the country’s biggest and toughest projects. 

Envisaged by the Army in 2012, the project is a 2,000-km long road that follows the McMahon Line and will begin from Mago in Arunachal Pradesh, adjacent to Bhutan, and pass through Tawang, Upper Subansiri, Tuting, Mechuka, Upper Siang, Debang Valley, Desali, Chaglagam, Kibithu, Dong, before ending at Vijayanagar near the Myanmar border.

With this project, Arunachal Pradesh will get three national highways — the Frontier Highway, the Trans-Arunachal Highway, and the East-West Industrial Corridor Highway. 

Six vertical and diagonal inter-highway corridors totalling 2,178 km will be built to provide missing interconnectivity between the three highways as well as to provide faster access to border areas.

The corridors include the 402 km-long Thelamara-Tawang-Nelia Highway, the 391 km-long Itakhola-Pakke-Kessang-Seppa-Parsi Parlo Highway, the 285 km-long Gogamukh-Taliha-Tato Highway, the 398 km-long Akajan-Jorging-Pango Highway, the 298 km-long Pasighat-Bishing Highway, and the 404 km-long Kanubari-Longding Highway.

Sources told ThePrint that every infrastructure project being taken up in the Northeast or ones planned in the future will be to improve connectivity for both civilians and the military.

While work on the ambitious Arunachal Frontier Highway has begun, the other big project that is being finalised is the 15.6-km twin tunnel under the mighty Brahmaputra river that will cut travel time between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.  

Sources said that the alignment of the tunnel is still being discussed but the project has been sanctioned by the Modi government.  

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

 Also Read: Eye on LAC, China plans to build highway through India-claimed Aksai Chin 


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