Right: driving through the snow on a BRO road. This is actually a colour photo!
Below: With the family at Sela Pass en route to Tawang
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th May 2010
Exactly 50 years ago, with war clouds gathering on the Sino-Indian border, Jawaharlal Nehru created the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), an inter-ministerial task force that has become an Indian exemplar of grit and fortitude. Thanks to over 48,000 kilometers of BRO roads, soldiers now drive to far-flung border picquets that earlier involved days of marching. But, even today on the BRO’s Golden Jubilee, an ambitious expansion of India’s border road network remains stymied by archaic state laws and a crippling lack of urgency.
The challenge before the BRO --- triggered by China’s dramatic expansion of road and rail links in Tibet --- is the Strategic Accelerated Road Development Programme (SARDP) planned by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. Under this, the BRO will build double-lane roads from each state capital in the northeast to each of that state’s district headquarters. That involves building 38 roads, approximately 2812 km long, within the next five years. In addition, the government has recently handed the BRO responsibility for the Arunachal Package, which involves building another 812 km of roads in the state that China calls “Southern Tibet”.
Holding back the BRO are two major obstacles. Firstly, the tribal structure of Arunachal Pradesh makes it difficult for the state government to acquire land for these roads. While the state government constitutionally owns non-private land, Itanagar goes by tribal tradition in which all land belongs to the local tribe. The acquisition of any land in Arunachal Pradesh involves extended negotiations with multiple tribal leaders who are increasingly aware of the value of their concurrence.
Admitting that land acquisition is a problem, the Director General of the BRO, Lt Gen MC Badhani, says, “Procedural delays (in land acquisition) have to be accepted. The locals bring forward their own concerns and aspirations and we try to take those on board. It is important to have local support.”
The other obstacle before the BRO is the requirement to provide each labourer with an Inner Line Permit (ILP) before entering Arunachal Pradesh, something that the state government implements strongly. Thousands of casual labourers from states across the country, especially Jharkhand and Bihar, are contracted for BRO projects in Arunachal; their employment is often held up while ILPs are issued.
“We will continue to enforce ILPs strictly in Arunachal”, promises a top bureaucrat in the Arunachal Pradesh state government. “Arunachal’s identity will be swamped by outsiders if we don’t keep a tight control on who enters the state. All kinds of trouble-makers can come into Arunachal pretending to be labourers; we will vet every single labourer and make the contractor responsible.”
These issues around contract labour are exacerbated by a 15% shortfall in the BRO workforce as well. The BRO is authorised 42,646 uniformed personnel but the current strength is just 36,000. A concerned BRO has approached the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for allowing a one-time bulk recruitment of civilian BRO officers to fill all the existing vacancies. For the non-officer ranks, two Mobile Recruiting Centres have been set up in Tezpur and Rishikesh; another two are planned for Jharkhand and UP/Bihar.
Another contentious issue that has held up work on road projects --- environmental clearance --- has apparently been resolved. The BRO chief, Lt Gen Badhani, explains, “While environmental and wildlife clearances do take time, I must say that we are extremely happy with the way that officials are now clearing projects. Earlier, 60-70 roads were held up for environmental clearance; today just 8 are held up.
Despite all the hurdles, the BRO claims that the SARDP is largely on track. The 10 roads (1047 kilometers) that must be delivered by 2012 are about 40-45% completed. Work is also progressing on the Arunachal Package.
As roads push into more rugged and underdeveloped areas, the pace of construction slows because of the logistical difficulties of transporting labour, plant and materials. To speed up construction, the BRO has indented for Mi-17 medium lift helicopters that can lift loads of 4 tonnes and land at helipads as high as 18,000 feet. But the IAF’s fleet of 120 Mi-17s is fully committed in ferrying supplies to the Indian Army’s high-altitude posts and has declined assistance. Now the BRO is approaching Pawan Hans for five Mi-17s.
Since the time the BRO’s first chief, the dashing Major General Kartar Nath Dubey, pushed through the first roads to Tawang and Chushul in the early 1960s, the BRO has become a reassuring presence on India’s borders. Every spring, it cuts through walls of snow in high-altitude passes to clear 95 roads, like the Srinagar-Kargil highway. The BRO is overseeing the 8.8 km long Rohtang tunnel, which will allow traffic to Lahaul-Spiti to flow around the year. It has constructed 19 border airfields and 400 major bridges. It is currently working on 699 roads, a length of 28,000 km.