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Displaying characters in Mandarin to indicate full connectivity, the phone promptly switches to Beijing time, which is two-and-a-half hours ahead of India. You then look across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to see the sprawling Tatu military complex of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which even includes a three-storey building, connected by a smooth, wide, seemingly metalled road.
“But we have no connectivity, whether it is roads or mobiles. It takes a mental toll. Even the evacuation of an injured soldier becomes a huge logistical challenge since the only road coming to Kibithu from Tezu is frequently blocked by landslides,” says an Indian Army officer, keeping tabs on the PLA troops across the unresolved border in this ‘east of the north-east’ region.
“If the road is cut off during hostilities, we will not be able to move troops or equipment. The main operational challenge for us here is the lack of roads, bridges and inter-valley connectivity, not military equipment or manpower,” he adds. In the entire Lohit Valley sector, for instance, there is no concrete bridge after Hawai, which is 76km south of Kibithu. Consequently, the Army is forced to make do with rickety foot-suspension bridges over the Lohit river, called Ngi Chu across the LAC, and an optical fibre communication line, which was laid way back in 2003 and has to be “maintained” on a daily basis over a 280-km stretch.
This grim situation is repeated all along the unresolved 4,057-km LAC stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, with India’s lack of border military infrastructure only serving to further compound the stark asymmetry with China in terms of military capabilities.
China’s assiduous building of military infrastructure in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which includes 14 airbases, an extensive rail network and over 58,000km of roads, gives it the capability to swiftly induct and sustain 30-32 divisions (each with over 12,000 troops) against India. But this last-mile connectivity for Indian troops remains a distant dream till now. Only 28 of the 73 ‘strategic’ all-weather roads, with more east-west lateral links as well as better access routes to strategic peaks and valleys, identified for construction almost two decades ago have been fully completed till now.
In eastern Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, the road heads are around 20 to 70 km away from the LAC in most stretches, forcing Indian troops to regularly undertake long-range patrols to “physically dominate” the country’s claim lines in the treacherous terrain. “Unlike us, the Chinese troops largely remain in their rear areas because they can reinforce fast due to their infrastructure build-up,” says an officer.
There is now a renewed but belated thrust on road and communication connectivity in the region, which has speeded up after the 73-day troop faceoff at Doklam near the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction last year.
“We are working on 17 single-span bridges in the Lohit Valley area, which will be 35-to 74-metre long and capable of even carrying tanks. We are also working on a major bailey suspension bridge, which will be the first such one between Hawai and Kibithu,” says Colonel Rajeev Dhingra, commander of the 48 Border Road Task-Force. The soldiers are keeping their fingers crossed.