By Nantoo Banerjee
Did the latest India-Japan move to transform the road infrastructure in India’s north-eastern region make China try to hastily build a road through hitherto demilitarised Doklam plateau in the strategic India-Bhutan-China trijunction and its military standoff following India’s resistance? Incidentally, Japan’s joining hands with India to build ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’ (AAGC) was first unveiled in May, 2017 at the 52nd annual meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDB) at Gujarat’s Gandhinagar. The India-Japan initiative on the ambitious infrastructure project did not seem to have gone down well with China. This is despite the fact that China is engaged in undertaking massive, unilateral infrastructure initiatives under the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project connecting it with Europe, parts of Asia, including China-Pakistan economic corridor, and Africa. Japan is already working with India to build infrastructure in Iran. Now, AAGC is a big initiative. It will serve as a great trade, commerce and strategic link among a large number of countries in the region.
Lately, Japan has been keen to work in and with India. In India’s north-eastern region, Japan is working to develop infrastructure and connectivity with important parts of South-east Asia through Myanmar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attached top priority to the road and infrastructure projects in the north-east region. Things are moving. They should now move faster after China’s official media outlet, Global Times, advised India to be ready for a short-term Chinese military attack in the Doklam region to protect the country against constant Chinese threats in the border region. Interestingly, former president Pranab Mukherjee, who also served twice as India’s external affairs minister, had subtly emphasized that “there is little time to be lost. Considering the huge pool of natural resources and the quality of its human resources, northeast of India has the potential of being an important investment destination and a centre for trade and business”.
Honestly, India cannot afford to waste any more time to strengthen its border area infrastructure and raise its defence capability to face the challenge of external aggression. India must build a top class road connectivity and infrastructure in the long-neglected north-east region of strategic importance. How China plans to react to the latest India-Japan initiative in the region is still not clear. Its military standoff at Doklam could be just a beginning. India shares a long border with China. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China traverses 4,057 kms along the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. There have been reports of short-term Chinese intrusions along LAC, almost every year. And, let this be admitted that Indian forces — military and paramilitary — are often ill equipped to act quickly to face off Chinese military adventures mainly due to lack of modern infrastructure facilities and roads on the Indian side.
For long, the task of building and maintaining roads in the area was left with the largely military-controlled Border Roads Organisation. And, there is little to talk home about BRO’s performance. The organisation regularly failed to meet its targets, primarily on account of inadequate budgetary support and shortage of manpower and equipment. India’s military line operations have always been unhappy with the organisation. Even the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence maintains a similar view. BRO is also beset with corruption. Building materials such as cement and steel often found their way to agents, who sold them cheaply to private traders. In its 19th report before Parliament, the standing committee, headed by BJP MP Major General (retd) BC Khanduri, was highly critical about BRO’s performance. Khanduri was a minister for roads in the Vajpayee government. His panel was particularly concerned about the continued delays in completion of the strategic Indo-China Border Roads (ICBR). Under ICBR, the previous UPA government had sanctioned the construction of 73 roads in 2005. BRO was entrusted with 61 of them covering a total length of 3,417 kms. They were to be completed by 2012. Only 21 of them of 661.59-km length have been completed so far. Reportedly, work on two of them has not even started. The proposed completion date has been revised to 2020 for the balance 40 roads but not many are willing to trust BRO. China, on the contrary, has built top class road infrastructure along its borders with India, making its military movement through the hills on its side easy and fast.
With Japan showing interest in the infrastructure development of the north-eastern region, the situation is expected to vastly improve in due course. Only four months ago, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed an agreement with the Union government to provide over 67 billion yen (US$610 million) for Phase I of the North East Road Network Connectivity Improvement Project, which will see the enhancement of important projects in Meghalaya and Mizoram. However, India will have to invest a lot more in the coming years to meet the infrastructure gap in this strategic area. A Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) report has estimated an investment requirement of US$48 billion to fully develop the road networks in the region.
Fortunately, Japan, which is emotionally attached to the region because of its huge loss of some 70,000 soldiers, who died in the battles of Imphal and Kohima during the World War II, had happily agreed to work with India and increase its presence in the region by investing in infrastructure and enhance connectivity with South East Asia. Suffice it to say that Beijing is very upset with the latest Indo-Japan cooperation initiative for infrastructure development, particularly in India’s north-east. The union cabinet must ensure that the project progresses fast and also AAGC becomes a reality to take on OBOR. (IPA Service)