A road, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development means, “A line of communication using a stabilised base other than rails or air strips open to public traffic, primarily for the use of road motor vehicles running on their own wheels”. It holds key to development of the Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh besides preventing any external threat as India shares 1,080 km border with China in this state alone.
Regrettably, lack of proper roads had witnessed humiliating defeat of Indian Army during 1962 Chinese aggression when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had temporarily crossed the McMohan line that demarcates border between the two Asian giants – India and China.
Arunachal Pradesh, geographically, the largest among eight Northeast states and 14th in India, has numerous sobriquets, including Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains, Orchid State of India, Paradise of the Botanists, Last Sangi La on Earth, Nilalaya.
That was why then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on January 31, 2008 had gifted the ongoing 1,559 km double-lane Trans-Arunachal Highway (TAH) or NH13 to link strategic Tawang in western part to Kanubari in the east by connecting 12 of 16 district headquarters, including Tawang, Bomdila, Nechipu, Seppa, Sagalee, Yupia, Yazali, Ziro, Daporijo, Aalo, Pasighat, Roing, Tezu, Mahadevpur, Bordumsa, Namchik, Changlang, Khonsa, Longding and Kanubari to remove isolation syndrome of the people of this land-locked state.
Arunachal Pradesh had total 30,692 km road, including 2,513 km of national highways (NHs) and 8,123 km PWD roads in 2015-16, according to Union road transport and highway transport (research wing) secretary Y S Mallick. However, NH density of the state was 30 per 100 sq km as on December 9, 2016. The state had 2,537 km of India’s total 1,15, 435 km NHs as on May 20, 2017, then union MoS for road transport and highways and shipping Pon. Radhakrishnan had told Lok Sabha in a written reply, adding DPR for 20,557-km of NHs was under preparation as on June 30, 2017.
Moreover, 2000 km Arunachal Frontier Highway (AFH) or Mago-Thingbu-Vijoynagar Highway with estimated cost of Rs 30,000-40,000 crore was planned along the McMohan Line in 2018 to supplement the Trans-Arunachal Highway and proposed Arunachal East-West Highway along the foothills of Assam border. Interestingly, the AFH had hit a roadblock in June 2016 with the Army raising objections fearing that it could be a strategic blunder due to its proximity to China in case of a confrontation. This had irked the state government as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy has been pushing development of this neglected NE state.
Union road transport and highways (RTH) minister Nitin Gadkari on January 15, 2017 had inaugurated four NH projects, including state’s first 20 km four-lane highway to link Itanagar and Holongi and serve as an important link with Guwahati and three two-lane highways worth Rs 935 crore but with estimated cost of Rs 50,000 crore to be completed before first five-year term of the government at the Centre ends.
However, the 20-km road, the lifeline of state Capital Complex, being executed by TK Engineering Consortium Pvt Ltd, had turned slippery and muddy making it vulnerable to accident by monsoon triggered massive rainfalls in June-July 2019 for the commuters to have worst ever experience even 33 years after Arunachal attained statehood in 1987. The two to three-hour travel time of 12 km from Itanagar to Naharlagun was a nightmare.
Deputy chief minister Chowna Mein, dissatisfied with inordinate delay in execution of four-lane NH 415 project during a meeting on February 8, had set a new deadline for completion of Package-A (Chandranagar to Papu Nallah) to expedite the work by deploying more machinery and increasing working hours so as to end the ongoing traffic menace.
But the 1962 conflict has embedded a deep wound in the hearts of all security personnel guarding the frontier. Lumpo village till 1992 was not connected by road, though Hut of Remembrance was built in 1989 in respect of the valiant heroes of 1962 war who had sacrificed their lives at Namkachu War while defending the nation. Though Lumpo and the last border post at Hatung La is connected by road, but the road condition in comparison to the other side of the international border is pitiable.
The Thag La border post of the PLA boasts of massive infrastructures including wide black-topped road, multi-storied RCC buildings with provisions of modern amenities. On the Indian side, contrary to the claims of New Delhi mandarins including then defence minister AK Antony the situation is much below the expectation. The road was not built to link Khinzemane, located along LAC between India and China about 15 km from Zimithang, where his Holiness Dalai Lama was received in 1959.
The last BRO’s 117 RCC was entrusted to link the road to the last border post. The ranks of four Grenadiers who had sacrificed their lives while defending the above post are honoured at the war memorial at Surwa Samba, 6 km from China. The road construction got expedited only after 2008, after then PM Singh announced the TAH.
This reminds then deputy prime minister L K Advani’s shocking disclosure at Itanagar on November 14, 2003, “Delhi had decided not to develop Arunachal after the 1962 Chinese aggression, fearing it could benefit the neighbour. It was a historical blunder.”
However, then defence minister AK Antony in his address during Statehood Day celebration at Itanagar on February 20, 2012 had announced massive plan to build infrastructure and strengthen the security apparatus in Eastern frontier. But the statement of then Lok Sabha member Ninong Ering on the floor of the Lok Sabha on May 19, 2012 that the 1962 situation still prevails along the Sino-Indo border was correct as was witnessed by this author during his visit to that area then.
Villagers said that the road construction began with due sincerity only after 2008. But how many years it would take to strengthen the war withal to defend the country is intriguing but needs immediate answer. Do the strategists have a magic wand to face any eventuality when the road (Balipara-Bhalukpong-Tawang) up to the border is not fair-weather because of high altitude Sela pass at 13,700 feet posing communication disruptions during winter and summer, no permanent structure worth the name exists for lack of policy to hand over land to the defence, no airport is built as yet in the area despite air-fed border posts while airports nearest to Sino-India border are located at Tezpur, Dibrugarh and Guwahati.
History will never forgive China for its suicidal move in October 1962 that had claimed the lives of four divisions of Indian Army at Hatung La for want of communication, winter clothes, food and ammunition at the height of 14,500 feet. The wound is still fresh in the minds of the forces deployed there who observe lot of rituals to honour the martyrs whose souls, they believe, are not liberated so far as bodies of most of them were neither recovered nor their last rites performed as per rituals. The Hatung La and Thag La passes stand tall while Nyamjang Chu and Namka Chu (rivers), which were witness to the gory conflict and the gallant acts of the Indian forces, still flow as usual, whose green waters ask — Is India ready for a trial of strength?
Commander of 42 BRTF RS Rao had briefed present chief minister Pema Khandu on August 2, 2016 about the progress of Bomdila-Tawang road and two proposed tunnels (500 m 1st tunnel and 1,450 m 2nd tunnel) to bypass about 10 km Sela pass with a motorable road to facilitate tourist inflow even during harsh winter when the pass remains cut off due to heavy snowfall. CM Pema Khandu while chairing district development committee at Tawang on August 7, 2019 had said: “Topmost priority will be given to road communication. If good connectivity is achieved all other development will fall in line.”
Opening of Bogibeel Bridge over Brahmaputra, India’s longest rail-road bridge, on December 25, 2018 by PM Narendra Modi was a boon for the defence forces to move to border areas of this Himalayan state. However, the tactical 9.15-km Dhola-Sadiya Bridge or Bhupen Hazarika Setu, the longest in India, for rapid movement of defense war withal and designed to handle up to 60 tonne weight, approved by MoRTH in January 2009 for construction to begin in November 2011 by Navayug Engineering Company, was inaugurated by PM Modi and Gadkari on May 26, 2017.
But the status of road building to border areas is much below the desired level in this sensitive border state whose territory is claimed by China as its own being ‘South Tibet”. Interestingly, then union finance minister Pranab Mukharjee, in his address at Tawang during Buddha Mohatsava in 2007, had announced that there would be no dearth of fund for building infrastructures at par with the other side of the border. Is India strategically ready for a trial of strength – is a relevant question?
(Pradeep Kumar is a print and electronic journalist of Arunachal Pradesh. He can be reached at beherapk61gmail.com. Views expressed are his own.)