Although work on the crucial 73 India China Border Roads (ICBRs) is ongoing, India is looking towards a stronger option for better connectivity along the entire Line of Actual Control. This is underground tunnels with India planning to construct 17 along the LAC, while developing its capabilities in this regard. Tunnels, unlike roads, will ensure that the distance to the LAC is drastically reduced and there is all-weather connectivity. This will lead to troops and adequate supplies- even during heavy snowfall that block important roads quickly reaching strategic locations in case of a Doklam like standoff or a future conflict.
More importantly, a major hurdle to the construction of border roads is land acquisition and forest clearances, which for tunnels is being considered a relatively smaller issue. This issue has often taken building of roads, which have much longer distances than tunnels, to be completed in a very long period of time.
In view of the need for capability and technological enhancement in this field, India’s primary border infrastructure construction agency, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), organised a two-day seminar this week.
Attended by officials from the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, Ministry of Roads Transport and Highways, Railways, the National Highways Authority of India, the Army and foreign firms involved in such construction activities, it was here that discussions were held on adopting best practises and techniques for tunnel construction.
THE BIG ISSUES
Along the entire LAC from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, military posts and the civilian population remain cut off for about six months in a year due to snowfall or rain. The issue is prevalent in the strategically located Ladakh region. The only option left for the armed forces to reach their personnel and send supplies is through air support.
Due to the restricted mobility and in view of the Dokalam standoff, India is quickly moving towards the construction of its 73 ICBRs along the LAC. These roads will also ensure development of the border regions. The BRO which is tasked with constructing 61 of them, has completed 27. However, work on this project which began in 1999 or any road construction in the border areas has its varied challenges.
The foremost problem is land acquisition. A border road passes through different terrains and so has several stakeholders. It could include the centre, state and forest officials and therefore involves different rules. In Arunachal this problem is grave due to lack of land records. Most of these roads are located in forests and wildlife sanctuaries and construction cannot start without environmental clearances, which take years.
Furthermore, the Himalayan ranges with its fragile geology has a history of earthquakes, landslides and avalanches. Monsoons and snow also play havoc, preventing construction and blocking roads.
On the other hand, the BRO is looking at tunnels for stronger connectivity, bypassing issues of road construction. “Instead of constructing long roads, encircling a hill and then moving on to the next hill, we can instead cut through the hill to create a tunnel.This will greatly shorten the distance from a particular start point to the required destination,” explains a BRO official.
Tunnels will reduce the operational cost of vehicles and the need for deploying troops for security duties in sensitive areas. It will also ensure all-weather connectivity to regions cut off from the mainland during winters. Tunnels will also be safe from avalanches and landslides. For example, the 10.9 km long Chenani-Nashri road tunnel in J&K reduces the distance between Chenani and Nashri from 41 km to 9.2 km and also bypasses 44 avalanche and landslide prone spots.
The BRO has planned to construct 17 highway tunnels about 100 km in length along the entire LAC, including some which are already under construction. Ladakh is a focus point. A primary tunnel is the 8.8 km long Rohtang tunnel being constructed by Strabag-Afcon joint venture. Others are at Lachung La, Baralacha La, Tanglang La on the Manali – Leh road and Shinkhunla, besides the Zojila pass on the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh road. In Arunachal, construction of a tunnel at Sela Pass will commence, besides at a place called Nechipu. In Sikkim, the 578 m long Theng tunnel is also being constructed. Tunnel construction will also form an important feature of the rail network.