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Sela tunnel puts spotlight on border infra push amid China standoff

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Defence minister Rajnath Singh remotely laid the foundation stone of the Nyoma airfield, located at a height of 13,300 feet and 23 km from LAC in Ladakh, in September 2023. (FILE)

The upcoming inauguration of the Sela tunnel in Arunachal Pradesh, which will help boost the Indian Army’s posture near the China border, stands testament to the country’s unwavering commitment to fortifying its border infrastructure, exemplifying a strategic imperative aimed at bolstering national security, said military affairs expert Lieutenant General Harpal Singh (retd), who oversaw critical phases of the project as the head of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO).

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to inaugurate the tunnel soon, the world’s longest twin-lane tunnel above 13,000 feet, built at a cost of 700 crore on the Balipara-Charduar-Tawang road.

The completion of the Sela tunnel, whose foundation stone was laid by Modi in February 2019, has put spotlight on India’s border infrastructure push aimed at bridging the gap with China, which has fast-tracked the development of its forward areas. India and China have been locked in a dragging military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh since May 2020, and a full resolution of the border crisis through ongoing negotiations still appears elusive.

“India has made notable strides in recent years in the face of environmental, geographical and geological hurdles in matching China’s expansive array of roads, tunnels, and other infrastructure undertakings,” said Singh. He served as BRO chief during 2018-20 and retired as the army’s engineer-in-chief a year ago.

While China’s rapid and extensive border infrastructure development is undeniable, India’s endeavours underscore a steadfast resolve to bridge the infrastructure disparity and elevate its strategic prowess in the region, he added.

China’s unrelenting infrastructure push over a span of just three to four years, confirmed by satellite images, encompasses new airbases, missile sites, roads, bridges, tunnels, reinforced bunkers, underground facilities to protect military assets from aerial strikes, accommodation for soldiers and ammunition depots. India’s infrastructure push is a direct response to the Chinese thrust on developing its border areas.

The Sela runnel will allow faster deployment of weapons, soldiers and equipment to forward areas near LAC in the Tawang sector.

India is narrowing the infrastructure gap with China at a brisk pace and if the current level of budgetary support continues, the country will surpass the neighbour on the border infrastructure front in five to six years, said Lieutenant General Rajeev Chaudhry, who retired as BRO chief last year.

“Many projects have been accelerated during the last four to five years. As many as 330 projects worth around 9,000 crore have been dedicated to the nation in the last three years alone. BRO’s capital outlay has jumped 160% since 2021-22. The rising budgetary support reflects the government’s sharp focus on border infrastructure development,” he said.

Speedy execution of projects, increased spending, and focussed adoption of technology and techniques to fill gaps that came into focus after the border standoff with China began in eastern Ladakh almost four years ago have provided a boost to military mobility and logistics support for India’s deployed forces.

The skirmish between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Galwan Valley in June 2020 was the inflection point that sharpened the country’s focus on building military capabilities and spurred unprecedented infrastructure construction to counter the adversary’s moves, Chaudhry said in an earlier interview.

Bilateral ties plummeted to a six-decade low after the Galwan Valley clash killed 20 Indian soldiers. According to India’s assessment, PLA’s casualties were twice as many as the Indian Army’s though Beijing officially claimed that only four Chinese soldiers were killed.

BRO constructed an average of 934km of roads every year during 2020-23, compared to 809km per year during 2015-20, and 632km per year during 2008-15, official data shows. It also built an average of 3,652m of bridges every year during 2020-23, compared to 2,715m per year during 2015-20, and 1,224m per year during 2008-15.

Most of these projects have been executed in treacherous terrain and have brought to fore the risky roles BRO workers fill in the country’s farthest frontiers.

Their contribution has been recognised by the government too.

In January, defence minister Rajnath Singh approved a proposal to provide insurance cover to tens of thousands of casual workers employed by BRO to build infrastructure in the country’s border areas. Last year, the government rolled out a new policy for BRO’s casual workers to give them dignity in case of death.

Singh had then approved the policy for the preservation and transportation of the mortal remains of casual labourers to their native place while also raising funeral expenses from 1,000 to 10,000 for those whose last rites are performed at the worksite.

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