By Devjyot Ghoshal
CHILLING, India, Sept. 29 (Reuters) – Ligen Eliyas deftly turns the excavator’s hydraulic arm to push a huge boulder into the Zanskar River below in a cloud of dust, clearing another ground for a strategic highway India is building in a hurry near the Chinese border.
The construction site near the hamlet of Chilling in the Ladakh region is about 250 km west of the area where Indian and Chinese troops are locked in the most serious confrontation in decades.
But when ready, the road will provide the only year-round access to large parts of Ladakh, including the border area. This will help to some extent to bring India on par with China, which has a network of roads and helipads on its side of the border.
“It will become a lot easier for the military once this road is finished,” Eliyas said, with parts of his face and a khaki uniform covered in fine stone dust.
The prolonged stalemate in the remote western Himalayas erupted in a bloody hand-to-hand clash in June in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and China suffered an unknown number of casualties. The Asian giants fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962.
The 283 km (175 mile) Nimmu-Padam-Darcha (NPD) highway that Eliyas is working on is expected to be completed in three years, officials said. It highlights India’s efforts, which have been redoubled after the latest tensions, to develop key infrastructure – roads, tunnels, bridges and airfields – along the volatile 3,500 km (2,170 mile) border with China.
The road will connect to an 8.8 km (5.5 mile) tunnel that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate in the coming weeks, opening up Ladakh’s snowy deserts to the rest of the country year round.
Two main highways connect Ladakh with the rest of India, but they are closed for at least four months each winter. The only way to send urgent supplies to Ladakh during these months is by air.
With thousands of troops amassed at the border and no sign of retreating, India is now making more effort to detonate and force its way through the Himalayas.
“We will not back down to take important and difficult measures in the interest of our country,” Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said this month, adding that the government has doubled the budget for infrastructure works to the Chinese border.
Frenzied construction itself has become a thorny issue this summer, with Chinese complaining that Indian activity in the mountains is unsettling, Indian officials said. But China built its infrastructure in the region years ago, and it must be matched, they said.
“China does not recognize the so-called ‘Ladakh Union Territory’ illegally created by India and opposes the construction of infrastructure in the border area for the purpose of military control,” the Minister said. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s office. He added that according to a recent consensus of both sides, neither side should take any measures that complicate the situation in the border area.
China’s Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
QUESTION OF HOURS
China’s network of roads and railroads, logistics depots and helipads means it can move troops to advanced areas in hours, said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior think-tank member of New Delhi Observer Research Foundation.
For India, it would take days to match these deployments, she said.
“The establishment of infrastructure by the Chinese is not only aimed at the rapid deployment of forces but also at their maintenance for a relatively longer period of time,” Rajagopalan said.
Conceived in 1999, the Indian NPD project evolved at an icy pace until the works were chosen just two years ago, said N.K. Jain, a commander of the state-run Border Roads Organization (BRO).
Since then, the BRO has constructed some 100 km of the NPD project and constructed 11 of the 15 major bridges along the route. “Our work is going at double the speed over the past two years,” Jain said.
New drilling machines that push sticks of dynamite deeper and faster into hard rock to detonate them have improved the speed of construction, said B. Kishen, an executive engineer from BRO who oversees the project near Chilling.
One recent afternoon, dozens of workers cleared debris from a freshly destroyed section of the road. A few miles away, another group crouched under an excavator as explosives set off to clear land for another section of the highway.
Work will continue through the harsh winter, when temperatures drop below minus 40 Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit) and high winds at elevations above 11,000 feet (3,300 m) make road construction even more difficult, Kishen said.
The government has identified 73 strategically important routes along the Chinese border, including 61 with the BRO, covering more than 3,300 km (2,000 miles). A report from the parliamentary committee in March noted that 75% of the work under BRO had been completed.
The comprehensive network of roads will reduce travel time between major Indian military bases, which will allow for faster mobilization of troops and facilitate patrols in some advanced areas, an Indian official said.
“It will also lead to lower expenses for the forces,” the official said, with all-season roads replacing the need for expensive airlift operations during the winter months.
“We will have a better chance of catching up with the Chinese.”