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India's Response to Chinese Road Building

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy was a Researcher at the Indian Pugwash Society, New Delhi.
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  • September 14, 2006

    In his latest address to the Indian Council of World Affairs on India's regional policy, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran reflected that the government had a long-term vision of an integrated South Asia, in which geographical boundaries would become irrelevant. With this in mind, New Delhi has put in place a number of measures to help connect with other countries in the region. Significantly, the Foreign Secretary's speech highlighted India's changing policies towards China. He underlined that borders should be seen as connectors and that the government had in recent years made a conscious attempt to treat India's border regions as integral to its foreign policy.

    In the new grammar of globalisation, India is finally kicking off a massive programme of road building along its entire border with China after decades of neglect. The government wants "connectivity" to define its relations with the neighbourhood, which would have the constructive effect of making borders irrelevant. Emphasising on infrastructure development as "transmission belts", the Foreign Secretary said, "The sobering reality is that despite the initiatives of the past few years with Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and others, we have not even been able to get back to the connectivity which existed in South Asia before 1947." That is why the "first order of business" is to resume the traditional linkages and even upgrade them. A coherent policy to build several new strategic roads along the India-China border area and to improve its internal connectivity right up to the disputed border is a belated reversal of old policy, which displays a new sense of self-confidence in the Indian government.

    As part of its emphasis on development of infrastructure along the international boundary, India has finalised 27 projects for construction of new roads in the India-China border area over the next four years. The government has earmarked Rs 900 crore for transforming the border areas. This includes construction of 862 kilometres of new roads in the India-China border area. Besides, the government is also examining proposals for constructing more roads along the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bhutan borders. In addition, India has proposed the launch of cross-LoC bus services between Kargil and Skardu in PoK and Jammu and Sialkot. These, together with the existing Delhi-Lahore and Srinagar-Muzaffarabad routes, would considerably help to link India and Pakistan. New Delhi is also upgrading and constructing integrated state of the art checkpoints on its borders with every neighbour. Besides the old Nathu La trading post, New Delhi wants to open another border trading point with China at Gumla.

    Efforts to improve connectivity along the India-China border is gaining momentum after the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) gave the green signal to build roads for the first time in the inaccessible and rugged terrain of the Himalayan borderland. According to official sources, these developmental plans are part of the Border Area Development Programme (BADP) - a comprehensive approach of the Indian government to transform the border regions.

    The BADP was started during the Seventh Plan with the twin objectives of balanced development of sensitive border areas in the western region through adequate provision of infrastructure facilities and the promotion of a sense of security amongst the local population. Further, in the Eighth Plan, the programme was extended to States that share international borders with Myanmar, China, Bhutan and Nepal. At present the BADP covers all the seventeen States, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and West Bengal, which share an international border with neighbouring countries. According to officials of the Union Home Ministry, while till 2005-06 the allocation for infrastructure development was Rs 320 crore annually, it was raised to Rs 520 crore for 2006-07. The Centre has directed all states that share international borders to prepare an action plan for the development of infrastructure. And the Planning Commission has said that if the development projects are carried out properly then the amount could be raised to Rs 1,000 crore in 2007-08.

    Shyam Saran's reflections on improving connectivity also make economic sense for India. Access routes are extremely useful if a state is to expand its political potential outward. They permit the establishment of political and diplomatic contacts, of alliances between states with common or complementary interests, and also provide services essential for promoting development. It plays a significant role in influencing the patterns of distribution of economic activity and improving productivity.

    Although India is an immediate neighbour to China and a natural partner in making 'the vision of an Asian century' into a reality, the connectivity and linkages between the two countries are quite sparse. However, India is exercising its strategies in multiple ways. On the one hand, it is accelerating co-operation with China at all levels, while on the other it is busy expanding co-operation with many of China's neighbours. It appears that such a well-calculated strategy would gradually enlarge the space of Indian interests while at the same time helping the country emerge as a key balancer to China.

    The globalisation of the economies of India and China will lead to their integration with the neighbouring regions. And both countries have begun to appreciate the importance of improving the connectivity of their remote provinces. At the same time the economic dimensions of national strategy are pushing them towards opening up these territories for trade and economic cooperation with the neighbouring regions. This involves re-establishing their historical connectivity and trading routes.

    India's size, strategic location, trade interests and a security environment that extends from the Persian Gulf in the west to the Straits of Malacca in the east and from the Central Asian Republics in the north to near the equator in the south, underpin India's security response. In view of this strategic spread, it is essential that India expands its wings omni-directionally. India's strategic manoeuvres can succeed if there is a softening of national borders to facilitate the creation of cross- border connectivity. It will find it easier to pursue its natural interests if it chooses to transform the Himalayas from a barrier to a bridge.