Border Roads turns 50; old traditions; new problems - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 6 May 2010

Border Roads turns 50; old traditions; new problems

Right: driving through the snow on a BRO road. This is actually a colour photo!

Below: With the family at Sela Pass en route to Tawang

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th May 2010

Exactly 50 years ago, with war clouds gathering on the Sino-Indian border, Jawaharlal Nehru created the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), an inter-ministerial task force that has become an Indian exemplar of grit and fortitude. Thanks to over 48,000 kilometers of BRO roads, soldiers now drive to far-flung border picquets that earlier involved days of marching. But, even today on the BRO’s Golden Jubilee, an ambitious expansion of India’s border road network remains stymied by archaic state laws and a crippling lack of urgency.

The challenge before the BRO --- triggered by China’s dramatic expansion of road and rail links in Tibet --- is the Strategic Accelerated Road Development Programme (SARDP) planned by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. Under this, the BRO will build double-lane roads from each state capital in the northeast to each of that state’s district headquarters. That involves building 38 roads, approximately 2812 km long, within the next five years. In addition, the government has recently handed the BRO responsibility for the Arunachal Package, which involves building another 812 km of roads in the state that China calls “Southern Tibet”.

Holding back the BRO are two major obstacles. Firstly, the tribal structure of Arunachal Pradesh makes it difficult for the state government to acquire land for these roads. While the state government constitutionally owns non-private land, Itanagar goes by tribal tradition in which all land belongs to the local tribe. The acquisition of any land in Arunachal Pradesh involves extended negotiations with multiple tribal leaders who are increasingly aware of the value of their concurrence.

Admitting that land acquisition is a problem, the Director General of the BRO, Lt Gen MC Badhani, says, “Procedural delays (in land acquisition) have to be accepted. The locals bring forward their own concerns and aspirations and we try to take those on board. It is important to have local support.”

The other obstacle before the BRO is the requirement to provide each labourer with an Inner Line Permit (ILP) before entering Arunachal Pradesh, something that the state government implements strongly. Thousands of casual labourers from states across the country, especially Jharkhand and Bihar, are contracted for BRO projects in Arunachal; their employment is often held up while ILPs are issued.

“We will continue to enforce ILPs strictly in Arunachal”, promises a top bureaucrat in the Arunachal Pradesh state government. “Arunachal’s identity will be swamped by outsiders if we don’t keep a tight control on who enters the state. All kinds of trouble-makers can come into Arunachal pretending to be labourers; we will vet every single labourer and make the contractor responsible.”

These issues around contract labour are exacerbated by a 15% shortfall in the BRO workforce as well. The BRO is authorised 42,646 uniformed personnel but the current strength is just 36,000. A concerned BRO has approached the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for allowing a one-time bulk recruitment of civilian BRO officers to fill all the existing vacancies. For the non-officer ranks, two Mobile Recruiting Centres have been set up in Tezpur and Rishikesh; another two are planned for Jharkhand and UP/Bihar.

Another contentious issue that has held up work on road projects --- environmental clearance --- has apparently been resolved. The BRO chief, Lt Gen Badhani, explains, “While environmental and wildlife clearances do take time, I must say that we are extremely happy with the way that officials are now clearing projects. Earlier, 60-70 roads were held up for environmental clearance; today just 8 are held up.

Despite all the hurdles, the BRO claims that the SARDP is largely on track. The 10 roads (1047 kilometers) that must be delivered by 2012 are about 40-45% completed. Work is also progressing on the Arunachal Package.

As roads push into more rugged and underdeveloped areas, the pace of construction slows because of the logistical difficulties of transporting labour, plant and materials. To speed up construction, the BRO has indented for Mi-17 medium lift helicopters that can lift loads of 4 tonnes and land at helipads as high as 18,000 feet. But the IAF’s fleet of 120 Mi-17s is fully committed in ferrying supplies to the Indian Army’s high-altitude posts and has declined assistance. Now the BRO is approaching Pawan Hans for five Mi-17s.

Since the time the BRO’s first chief, the dashing Major General Kartar Nath Dubey, pushed through the first roads to Tawang and Chushul in the early 1960s, the BRO has become a reassuring presence on India’s borders. Every spring, it cuts through walls of snow in high-altitude passes to clear 95 roads, like the Srinagar-Kargil highway. The BRO is overseeing the 8.8 km long Rohtang tunnel, which will allow traffic to Lahaul-Spiti to flow around the year. It has constructed 19 border airfields and 400 major bridges. It is currently working on 699 roads, a length of 28,000 km.


  1. I respect the BRO,from afghanistan to natula in sikkim ..they are the best Public work department we have in the country.I still remember the way they were working in sikkim when I was fortunate to go there 3 years back.
    We need a to make it more like a corporate structure like BSNL with private efficiency and public social responsibility.

  2. It is unfortunate that the GoI has underestimated the importance of good road network, especially in the NE where people still have sense of being far from the mainland.

    The government should ensure that all the state capitals of NE are connected by four lane highways, and that all weather roads are connected to the main East-West highway of Golden quadrilateral. It should also ensure that these roads are weather proof and don't lead to entire NE getting cut off from mainland due to floods in Brahmaputra etc. These roads should be handed over to the private sector to be completed on priority basis.

    Apart from this, all border outposts and important towns for security should be constructed by BRO, and its manpower doubled if required.

    Studies have shown that having good access to roads improves the economic climate, and people having good access to roads earn more than those without proper access to good roads. This will also benefit the NE region in teh long term, leading to reduced insurgencies etc

  3. BRO personnels are probably one of the most underrated and unknown heroes of India. They are the giants on whose shoulders our army stands. Really nice article to bring out their contributions towards India. Good luck BRO, we are indebted to you.

  4. I think the only hope for India to survive and thrive as a nation is in the hands of our armed forces. I wish and hope one day our armed forces take control of the country and eliminate all politicians who divide and destruct the country in the lines of caste, religion and language for their own political gain... Our neighbour has done more than once... turkey has done... china has done(though not with their military)... i hope india will also do one day... ours is NOT DEMOCRACY... its not DRAMA-CRAZY...

  5. when we talk of bro, we forget the sacrifice and step motherly treatment given by army officers to GREF people.

  6. Ajai sir

    as always I have few questions

    Q1. Apart from the Zaranj- Delaram road in Afghanistan, is the BRO building any other road there.

    Q2 A tunnel road to link Lahol-Spiti with rest of HP and take it further into Leh through
    Rohtang, was being considered, is it still on.

    Q3. A tunnel road to supplement NH1, whats its status.

    PS- though its personal choice, you looked good with beard.

    By the way why are you not on Twitter.

  7. Joydeep:

    Q1. Apart from the Zaranj- Delaram road in Afghanistan, is the BRO building any other road there.


    Q2 A tunnel road to link Lahol-Spiti with rest of HP and take it further into Leh through
    Rohtang, was being considered, is it still on.

    YES. Maybe it's a good idea to read the article before posting question. I mean read through to the last para.

    Q3. A tunnel road to supplement NH1, whats its status.



    What a great idea! Pakistan really needs people like you. Your plan holds them up as an example; takes India to the level of Pakistan; and completely destroys the Indian Army.

    Magnificent plan!

  8. Hi Ajay, it appears our govt is somewhat indifferent to NE states though ample funds are provided to them. I might be mistaken, but I feel the NE is literally cut-off from the mainland. And why is our govt always reactionary? Why is it that roads have to be built in Arunachal Pradesh only after China does something?
    On a different note I saw your NDTV video called 'Is it time for India's intelligence agencies to declassify..' or something similar, I find that you have no posts on your blog on such issues,is it because of any particular reason?

  9. Hi Ajai,

    Do you have any updates on the Rohtang tunnel work? How much work has been done, and when is the completion date?

    Thanks in advance.

  10. The north - south in idian is becoming a bigger problem. First it was a language issue and now is even more. They clearly hate the northerners. I have heard them call (high educated), that the northerns are the children of Paks and worse. There was also a recent report (US foregin policy paper i think?) that expects these issue to increase as india gets more wealthy and people discover india only ever existed as a country when conquered and held together by an external force. In a situation like that you will see IA come in to the fore. Question is who will be leading it?

  11. Amazing first pic! I'd be terrified to drive there at night...

  12. Marcus,

    I am a south indian and you are speaking rubbish. I may not always agree or like north indians (and nor they I) but we are all indians. You non Indians may dislike it, but here is the thing you have had decades to reverse our progress and divide us, and you have failed. India exists and will continue to exist.

  13. Ajai what is the little cuties name?
    And you have 3 dogs? Seriously, you must be a patient man!!

  14. Ajai, a story on the Kaveri Mk2 engine, please! Looks like something's happening on that front at last!

  15. can any body explain the role of GREF IN BRO. AND WHAT DOES THIS MEAN,IS IT THE SAME (BRO)


  17. Hey Guys have you heard two more UAV's (Nishats???) crash landed, just because the wind changed direction....or were they running away from something? Anyway it show the DRDO quality again. We need to buy more Iserali stuff...order their UAV's in large numbers and get a licence to produce them locally.

  18. Well don't get too excited about the kaveri...look what is happening to other 100% indigenous products:

    "Two Nishant UAVs Crash-Landed "...this happened because the wind changed direction :-)

    Imagine if LCA crashed ...IAF will kill the project in a millisecond....

  19. In engineering, there are always accidents. The only question is whether you have the resolve to go find the problem and fix it. The only issue here is the nation's perseverance in the face of failure.

  20. Ajai sir

    the BRO is building a road on Indiam bhutan, Tibet tri-junction.

    Q1. How long it is and will it connect to Gangtok.

    Q2. Is BRO or GOI planning to extend the road to Paro, Bhutan. Its very close to it, isnt it

  21. Ajai sir

    just got pictures of under renovation INS Vikramaditya

    amazing isnt it

  22. Great photo Ajay. And if you are keeping mongrels instead of snobily having nothing but the pedegreed dogs, then it is another feather in your cap. Keep it up

  23. I noticed that Google maps shows Arunachal as Chinese territory, the surrounding borders are in dotted lines (Chinese). GOI needs to take this up


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