Ligen Eliyas cleverly rotates the excavator’s hydraulic arm to push a giant boulder in a cloud of dust into the Zanskar River, clearing another piece of land for a strategic highway India is rushing to build near the Chinese border.
The construction site near the hamlet of Chilling in the Ladakh region is about 250 kilometers west of the area where Indian and Chinese troops are embroiled in the worst confrontation in almost 50 years.
When the road is ready it will be the only year-round access to large parts of Ladakh, including the border zone. This will help equate India with China, which has a network of roads and helipads on its side of the border.
“It will be a lot easier for the army when this road is finished,” said Eliyas, with parts of his face and a khaki uniform baked in fine stone dust.
The protracted stalemate in the remote western Himalayan region erupted into bloody hand-to-hand combat in June, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and China suffered an unspecified number of casualties. The Asian giants waged a brief but bloody border war in 1962.
The 283 km long Nimmu-Padam-Darcha (NPD) motorway, on which Eliyas works, is expected to be completed in three years. It underscores India’s efforts, redoubled in the wake of recent tensions, to develop vital infrastructure – roads, tunnels, bridges and airfields – along the indefinite 3,500 km border with China.
The road will be connected with a 8.8 km long tunnel, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate in the coming weeks, which will open the snowy desert of Ladakh – which borders Tibet – which India will open all year round to the rest of the country managed.
Two main highways connect Ladakh with the rest of India, but are closed for at least four months each winter. The only way to send urgent deliveries to Ladakh during these months is by air.
With thousands of its troops on the border and with no signs of withdrawal, India is now pressing harder to blast and smash its way through the Himalayas.
“We are not going to take a big and tough step in the interests of our country,” Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told parliament this month, adding that the government has doubled the budget for infrastructure works on the Chinese border.
The frenetic construction itself has become a sensitive issue this summer as the Chinese complained that Indian activities in the mountains were destabilizing, Indian officials said. But China built its infrastructure in the region years ago, and it needs to be adjusted, they said.
“China does not recognize the so-called” Ladakh Union Territory “illegally established by India and refuses to build infrastructure in the border area for the purpose of military control,” said the office of the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. A recent consensus on both sides suggests that neither side should take action that complicates the situation in the border area.
Ladakh was cut out of India-administered Kashmir last August after New Delhi withdrew its limited autonomy from the Muslim-majority Himalayan region.
The Chinese Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The frenetic construction itself has become a sensitive issue this summer as the Chinese complain that Indian activities in the mountains have been destabilizing [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]
Matter of hours
China’s road and rail network, logistics depots, and helipads make it possible to get troops to forward areas in a matter of hours, said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a distinguished associate at the New Delhi think-tank Observer Research Foundation.
It would take India days to get these stakes, she said.
“The establishment of the infrastructure by the Chinese aims not only at the rapid deployment of forces, but also to maintain them over a relatively long period of time,” said Rajagopalan.
The Indian NPD project, conceived in 1999, moved rapidly until work only started a few years ago, said NK Jain, commander of the state-run Border Roads Organization (BRO).
Since then, BRO has built around 100 kilometers of the NPD project and built 11 of the 15 main bridges on the route. “Our work has been going twice as fast in the past two years,” said Jain.
New drills that push sticks of dynamite deeper and faster into hard rock to blow them apart have improved construction speed, said B Kishen, a senior engineer from BRO who oversees the project near Chilling.
One final afternoon, dozens of workers cleared debris from a freshly blasted section of the road. Another group was crouched under an excavator a few miles away when explosives went off to clear land for another stretch of the highway.
The work will continue in bitter winter when temperatures drop below minus 40 degrees Celsius and biting winds at altitudes above 3,300 m make road construction even more difficult, said Kishen.
The government has identified 73 strategically important roads along the Chinese border, 61 of which are at the BRO and more than 3,300 km long. A report by the Parliamentary Committee in March found that 75 percent of the work under BRO was completed.
The entire road network will reduce travel time between major Indian military bases, which will allow troops to be mobilized faster and make patrol easier in some forward areas, an Indian official said.
“It will also reduce spending on the armed forces,” the official said. All-weather roads replace the need for expensive airlifts in the winter months.
“We’ll have a better chance of catching up with the Chinese.”
In the past few months, one of India’s largest military logistics exercises for years has brought large quantities of ammunition, equipment, fuel, winter supplies and food to Ladakh.
[Work will continue through the bitter winter, when temperatures drop to below minus 40 Celsius [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]