At the inauguration of 9.2 km long Atal Tunnel in Himachal Pradesh today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited three projects in the western, central and eastern parts of the country to highlight how the previous governments lacked the requisite strategic vision. The prime minister pitched for a rapid border infrastructure upgrade to defend India.
In the context of the ongoing standoff between Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in east Ladakh, the prime minister cited the example of the 16,800 feet high airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi post near the Karakoram Pass. It could not be activated due to the lack of political will from 1965 to 2008, Modi alleged.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) activated the advanced landing ground in 2008, using a Russian AN-32 plane. The IAF informed the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government after completion of the mission. C-130J Hercules aircraft now uses the airstrip, which is vital for supplies to troops in DBO-Depsang Bulge area, much to the chagrin of the Chinese commanders.
Without referring to China, the prime minister blamed the previous regimes for placing hurdles in way of Indian Army patrols along the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) by not building roads leading to the perceived line. China experts believe that it is this 30-year differential in border infrastructure between the two countries that helps the PLA, in terms of both capacity and capability.
The Indian National Congress governments since the humiliation of the country in the 1962 war due to Jawaharlal Nehru’s follies believed that border infrastructure would help China invade easily. They deliberately kept the areas near the LoAC and MacMahon Line underdeveloped, say military experts.
Prime Minister Modi used three projects launched by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government — Atal tunnel (Himachal Pradesh), Kosi Maha Setu (Bihar) and Boghibeel bridge (Assam) — to showcase the deliberate indifference of past governments towards achieving national goals. The Himachal Pradesh government had inaugurated the Atal tunnel on Saturday and Kosi rail bridge in September. These projects had been hanging fire since 1934. Modi commissioned the Bogibeel Setu in 2018, he reminded in his speech today.
In the presence of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane and Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar, Prime Minister Modi took potshots at the Indian bureaucracy that kept the Rafale fighter acquisition pending by only flying files from one desk to the other. He said this compromised the defence of India. Citing the example of the state of ordnance factories, the prime minister issued an oblique warning to Indian bureaucracy to not stand in the way of “Atmanirbhar Bharat”.
While the importance of the Atal tunnel cannot be understated, the fact is that this tunnel under Rohtang La opens a new road to Ladakh via Darcha-Padam-Nimu route rather than Darcha-Upishi-Leh route — which is blocked six months a year due to heavy snow — at four other high mountain passes en route. The Darcha-Padam-Nimu route can remain open round the year once a 4.5 km tunnel is built under Shinku La on Darcha-Padam axis.
Just as the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is building roads in the Ladakh sector to connect remote areas of the country, it is moving at a much faster pace to complete strategic roads in Arunachal Pradesh so that places such as Tawang, Walong and Kibuthoo are linked through all-weather roads to other parts of India.
It is no wonder that China has refused to recognise the union territory of Ladakh. It carries out its own border infrastructure upgrade in the areas to create an impression these are Chinese territories and India is the occupying force.