The inauguration of the Udhampur-Katra railway link by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week marked a big boost to India’s infrastructure. Even though the completion of this 30 km stretch might appear to be no big deal, there are significant economic and security implications, and equally, what it might imply for the importance of border infrastructure in the Modi administration.
Border infrastructure, especially railways, has not been taken seriously enough in decades. The list of pending projects is long. Unfortunately India does not have the luxury to wait for another decade before many of these projects are completed.
Improved border infrastructure brings several benefits across multiple domains – economic, security and military. But because of the unsettled nature of India’s borders, the security implications are clearly the most important.
The Indian Army’s request to construct 14 “strategic” rail links did not particularly figure in the railway budget, presented on July 8. However, the general budget, presented on July 10, has made an allocation of Rs 1,000 crore for improving rail connectivity in the northeast, although this is a tiny fraction of the expenditure involved. While 12 projects (11 in the northeast and 1 in Jammu and Kashmir) are being accorded “national projects” status, which will improve the general connectivity in the northeast, these projects have no particular bearing on the lines identified by the Army. The 14 strategic lines identified by the Army include new railway links in all sectors. The critical ones are in the eastern and northern sectors, specifically the Murkongselek-Pasighat-Tezu-Parasuramkund-Rupai (256 km) line, the Misamari-Tawang (378 km) line, and the North Lakhimpur-Along-Silapathar (248 km) in the northeast and the Pathankot-Leh (400 km), Jammu-Akhnoor-Poonch (223 km), and the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh (430 km) in the northern sector. These would cover a distance of 3,016 km and cost around Rs. 55,831 crore.1
Money is part of the problem, with different departments fighting over who would pay the cost. Inter-departmental committees could not sort it out. There are other reasons also for the slow progress, including the terrain, which has hampered track expansion to the extent that several networks in these regions are still metre gauge. Many of these rail networks have also remained so antiquated with speeds limited to 30 km/h in certain sections.
One of the major challenges in railway construction in India is establishing connectivity across wide rivers. Huge variations in climatic conditions as well as the flow of the rivers in addition to the lack of solid stones and rocks have been a curse on the engineers who have to plan and devise bridges across huge rivers such as the Brahmaputra in Assam. Building a rail link between the south and the north bank of the Brahmaputra has been a herculean task and has consumed several decades. The Bogibeel bridge over the Brahmaputra has taken almost 20 years and is still nowhere near completion, despite being classified a “national project.”
In addition to the difficult terrain, construction companies have often had to deal with local terrorists and insurgent groups, who have kidnapped men and burnt down machinery and equipment. These security considerations have dampened the interests among the private sector to go to these regions. Land acquisition and clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests have also compounded the challenge. Finding and retention of quality labour have also been challenging.
The slow pace of rail track construction in India is a total contrast to the development across the border. China has already built a 1142 km-long electrified railway line from Golmud (Gormo in Tibetan language) to Lhasa and has plans to extend the line to Shigatze and Yatung, reaching almost the strategic Nathu La pass. They have plans to extend the Golmud-Lhasa (Qinghai Tibet) railway line to Nyingchi, close to its border with India on the Arunachal Pradesh side and further extend it to Dali in Yunnan Province.2
This line, running parallel to Arunachal Pradesh, will help quick mobilisation of the PLA from Kunming, Dali and Kaiyuanand to Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). These lines would also help the PLA troops, the 13 Group Army (Unit 56005), to relocate from Sichuan Province to TAR. This railway line has a capacity to run up to eight trains (one way) per day. This is a significant achievement as it cuts travelling time from Mainland China to Lhasa to two days with a total tonnage capacity of 3,200 tonnes per train.
China is now in the process of building a rail network linking it to Pakistan. From the Chinese perspective, these networks are significant as they become the shortest trading route as well as provide alternate energy supply routes from the Persian Gulf to Xinjiang. While these linkages have a huge economic relevance, their significance in the military and defence areas cannot be overlooked.
Though New Delhi faces many problems in improving its border infrastructure, the biggest problem is the lack of political direction at the highest level. The Modi government should keep in mind the tremendous advantages in establishing railway connectivity in the border areas and not repeat the mistakes of the past. While previous governments also claimed to recognize the importance of border infrastructure, their actions did not match their words and most of these projects remained unimplemented.
1. Rajat Pandit, “Key Railway Lines Along Borders Still Off Track,” Times of India, February 24, 2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Key-railway-lines-along-borders-still-off-track/articleshow/30916309.cms.2. For details of new lines, see “Qinghai-Tibet railway to Get Six New Lines,” China Daily, August 17, 2008, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2008-08/17/content_6943311.htm.
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