BRO is the best and cheapest organisation for road-building in difficult terrains (September 2010)
Lt Gen. Gautam Dutt [retd]
My first posting on commissioning in 1970 was in an Engineer Regiment in 17 Mountain Division. The Regiment was located at Milestone 13 on the Gangtok-Nathu la Highway. During the 1971 War with Pakistan, my Field Company that was in support of 63 Mountain Brigade was located at Nathu la and we were like the rest of the Division LOB (Left out of Battle) for the entire duration of the War. Obviously, the Powers that be, had decided that we could not take a chance with China. This reaction was possibly due to our inherent sense of unease with possible Chinese reactions, a legacy of 1962 War.
However, over the years we had become complacent as far as China is concerned and our Pakistan-centric attitude caused us to develop some sort of amnesia as regards the fact that China was, currently is and will continue to be our main adversary in any future war.
China has been developing their road, rail and oil pipeline infrastructure in Ladakh since Nineties. However, though we were aware of these developments, there was a sense of smugness in India due to our Pakistan-obsessed minds. It was only in the early part of this decade (approx around 2000-02) that satellite images and intelligence reports started to pour in indicating Chinese constructing roads well forward of Leh and in the Eastern Theatre. They now had roads, constructed either right up to the India-China border or just a few kilometers short of it. Over the years, Chinese have further improved this profile and brought them right on our door step.
It is only then that it dawned on us that these developments were an exercise to have a capability of taking on a pro-active stance against India whenever the Chinese desired, rather than for ‘Hanisation’ of Ladakh or any other ulterior motives. This caused a review and a realisation among the Indian Security intelligentsia and India evolved a ‘Look East’ policy. What is important to note is that we are at least 20 years behind China in development of roads in the forward areas. Instead of focusing on this important deficiency, our commitments with Operation Parakram in 2002 further delayed the decision making process.
From 2005-06, the necessity of having matching infrastructure was considered essential and the Border Roads Organisation (or more famously known as the BRO) was tasked to construct large number of roads on priority. It however took nearly three years, both due to the fact that the BRO were not too sure what was required or how to mobilise resources as also the procrastination of the government at the decision making level to accord necessary sanction quickly, that execution at the ground level commenced only in 2008-09.
Role of the BRO
The BRO maintains roads that serve the border areas of India. The organization works for the development and maintenance of arterial roads that are of strategic importance for the Indian Army. BRO’s activities have also helped to accelerate the economic development of the North and North Eastern Border States. The roads construction teams have to deal with some of the harshest climatic conditions in the world.
The BRO faces formidable hurdles like the icy Himalayan tops, the marshes of West Bengal and the deserts in Rajasthan. BRO undertakes road constructions and maintenance at high altitude in the hills. Some of the BRO roads are built as high as 6,000 meters (19,685 ft) above mean sea level. The BRO was formed on 7 May 1960, with the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as the chairman of the Border Roads Development Board, as an inter-ministerial organisation. The organisation has a yearly budget of Rs 5000 crores (1086m USD) and has its operations spread across India, Bhutan and Myanmar.
The Border Roads Organisation operates a network of over 34,306 kilometres of roads and 16,601 meters (54,465 ft) of permanent bridges. BRO has operations in 22 states including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory.
The BRO is composed of 17 Projects, which are divided into task forces that are further subdivided into RCCs (Road Construction Companies), workshops, store, supply & transport convoy. BRO is also in charge of maintenance of its networks. In many places landslides, avalanches and snow block the routes and have to be cleared as quickly as possible. BRO also employs the local populace in the task thus providing a steady employment to the peoples of the border areas. The BRO has a number of challenges that it needs to be addressed to ensure that it remains a potent organisation.
The BRO has increased the number of Projects from 12 in 2006 to 17 today, with a 18th Project scheduled for raising in 2012. This increase was necessitated due to the increased workload that the BRO was required to take on due to accelerated road construction activity across the border. CEs Shivalik and Arunank were raised and CE Swastik resuscitated from suspended animation in 2008. Later CE Rohtang Tunnel was raised in 2009 and now CE Vijayank is in the process of raising in September 2010.
The BRO today has a total of 37,000 personnel as against a sanctioned strength of 42,000. In 2006, when the BRO was required to expand to meet the needs of creating new projects, the government sanctioned a onetime increase of nearly 5000 personnel and it started enrolling fresh manpower since a large number of BRO personnel were too old to either serve in High Altitude Area (HAA) or take on heavy physical work. The other challenge lies in relocating its personnel from a HAA or difficult Counter Insurgency (CI) area posting to a peace posting before sending him back to another HAA or CI grid environment. Physically and psychologically, a person needs at least six years before being sent to a HAA again. However, the BRO does not have enough peace stations and appointments to enable rotation of manpower. This issue has been compounded since as a policy the BRO has been handing over completed roads in the hinterland to the State PWD and thus denuding itself of possible peace postings for its personnel.
All across our forward areas both in the North and North East, climate plays a very important part. The actual working period is restricted to approximately four to five months since snow and rain ensures that no construction can be done. In fact, the planning timelines are 100 to 120 days in a year. This constraint causes the BRO to follow a two-year schedule where all material required in one year are moved forward in the first year and utilised in the subsequent year. This necessitates that the approach roads from the hinterland must be clear and breach free during the induction period.
Obtaining clearance from the ministry of environment and forest has been one of the major reasons for delay in road construction in our country. Besides, procrastination by the state government in making available suitable land for road construction activity has been a major retardant. To resolve this challenge, the government has set up a High Level Committee headed by the cabinet secretary to cut down clearance time for projects from the previous 15 to 40 months timeline to a more acceptable six months. This positive action has speeded up clearances and overcome bureaucratic delays at all levels.
The government has been very supportive in increasing the annual budget of the BRO from Rs 3,000 crore in 2007-08 to Rs 5,000 crore in the current year although the target this financial year is Rs 6,000 crore (a increase of 100 per cent over the last three to four years). This monetary support will continue to increase at 10 to 12 per cent over the next 10 years.
The BRO has been able to meet this challenge due to the creation of the Empowered Committee that has allowed modern equipment and machines to be introduced into service quickly. The problem of inducting heavy earth moving equipments by air so that construction of a road from multiple locations has been partially resolved by the Empowered Committee permitting use of Pawan Hans and other private carriers to air lift equipment.
The Himalayas are Young Fold Mountains where tectonic movements cause landslides at frequent intervals. This has been further aggravated by a marked climate change that is resulting in cloudbursts at a greater frequency causing heavy localised damages. The recent cloud burst in Leh is an example of the havoc that weather can cause to the environment. Avalanche diversion schemes and construction of protection measures are in progress and will continue in the foreseeable future.
The government has decided that all existing General Staff roads are to be upgraded to National Highway Double Lane (NHDL) specifications while all new roads would be constructed to either NHDL or enhanced Class 9 specifications. This implies that all existing projects across the country to be upgraded in a time bound manner.
Initially, a Three Phased Development programme was envisaged which laid down three time lines, viz, Short Term by 2012, Medium Term by 2017 and Long Term by 2022. These time lines have now been modified to two phases, to be in sync with the Military Operations Directorate plans, and are termed as Long Term Perspective Plan (LTPP)-1 to be completed by 2012 and LTPP-2 to be completed by 2022. Essentially, in all cases, the LTPP-1 would take the roads from the hinterland to about 30 km aerial distance from the IB; ground distance 50 to 60 km from the IB while the LTPP-2 would connect the passes while laterals would come up to enable intervalley connectivity to permit switching of forces.
A sector wise analysis will help understand how the BRO is planning to meet the challenges of infrastructure development to face China’s challenge.
Jammu and Kashmir : Exclusively chief engineer Himank is presently looking after the Ladakh sector. To better manage the projects an exclusive CE Projects Vijayak is being raised by mid-September 2010 that will be tasked to construct and maintain roads along the Srinagar-Leh axis, Kargil Sector and the alternate lateral being developed in the hinterland for better connectivity.
This will permit CE Himank to accelerate construction activity in Eastern Ladakh from Chushul to Daulat Beg Oldie (i.e. the areas lying north and north-east of Leh). All roads in this sector are likely to be completed by 2022.
Himachal Pradesh : CE Deepak, which was earlier responsible for HP, Punjab and Uttarakhand has been revamped and is now tasked to construct the two arterial roads in this sector up to the IB. These roads are likely to be ready by 2016.
Uttarakhand : CE Shivalik was raised and strengthened to take on the entire road construction activity in all the three valleys up to the IB. Construction of some of these roads were delayed due to delayed clearance from the ministry of environment and forest. All these roads should hopefully get completed by 2022.
Sikkim : CE Swastik was resuscitated from suspended animation and has now taken on the construction of an alternate road to Gangtok and North Sikkim as also the development of roads in North Sikkim through both the Lachen and Lachung axis leading upto the LAC. These development projects are likely to get completed by 2015. The aim of alternate axis and improving the road specifications in Sikkim is both in terms of providing alternate laterals for speedy build up as also for easy induction of armoured vehicles to the Kerang plateau. Towards this end all the bridges from Siliguri to Gangtok and thereafter from Gangtok to Chatten along the existing North Sikkim Highway were upgraded to Class 40 in 2008 with some temporary work to improve the turning radius. However, in LTPP–2, it is envisaged that all bridges will be constructed to permanent specifications.
In addition, all roads in Sikkim are being upgraded to NHDL specifications to be able to permit smooth induction of Pinaka/Smerch in the future. These improvements are expected to be completed by 2016.
Arunachal Pradesh : In the ALP, there is no scope for classical armour manoeuvre. However, all roads are being upgraded to NHDL specifications to be able to take on heavier artillery such as Pinaka/Smerch. To support such a deployment plans, all bridges are being upgraded to permanent Class 40 specifications. In addition, an alternate route to Tawang is also under construction from Bhalukpong.
In the Subansari and Siyom Valleys, the road network has gone well past Along and should get completed by 2017-18 though construction of bridges could take the completion to around 2020. Along the Kibuthu axis, the bridge at Brahmakund has been completed and a bridge is under construction at Digaru. In addition, a rail bridge is being constructed at Dibrugarh across the Brahmaputra. A major bridge at Pasighat has been completed. The National Highways 52 and 37 running along the north and south bank of River Brahmaputra respectively are being joined up at the extreme eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh. This will ensure additional flexibility in switching of forces between the valleys and trans-Brahmaputra river movement.
Project management in entire ALP was the responsibility of CE Vartak. CE Udayak was raised in the Nineties to share the load. With the raising of another project team named CE Arunank, there will be three project Chief Engineers looking after strategic road development work in ALP. The Western ALP will be the responsibility of CE Vartak, Central will be looked after by the CE Arunank, while CE Udayak has been tasked exclusively for the Eastern ALP. The target is to connect all district headquarters with DLNH specification roads by 2015-16. A trans-ALP Highway to connect all the valleys is also under construction with funding from ministry of roads transport and highways. The time frame for roads to reach the IB in all sectors in ALP is around 2022.
The Border Roads is a dynamic organization that swells and shrinks as per the specific requirement of the armed forces and the necessity of road construction activity in the forward areas. The organisation has been very effective and thus would need to be nurtured in the future so that they can meet the aspirations of the public.
It is well known in the trade circles that the BRO is the best and cheapest organisation for construction of roads in the difficult terrain obtaining along our borders.
In so far as strategic road programmes opposite China is concerned there can be no doubt that it has been delayed owing to number of factors both strategic mind set and environmental clearances. Now as it will be seen from above a new impetus is being imparted hopefully by the turn of this decade India will have matching roads infrastructure comparable if not better than the Chinese.
(The writer retired as engineer-in-chief, Indian Army in 2009)
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