Sunday, August 1, 2010
"India Digs Under Top of the World to Match Rival," story in New York Times on the Sino-Indian Border Infrastructure
Here's the link to a story in New York Times, quoting me on the Sino-Indian border infrastructure. The story by Lydia Polgreen has appeared in today's print edition.
India Digs Under Top of the World to Match Rival
By LYDIA POLGREEN
ROHTANG PASS, India — The name of this white-knuckle pass, one of the highest in the world, means “pile of corpses” in the Tibetan language. Every year a few dozen people die trying to cross these spiky Himalayan peaks.
For six months the road is snowbound, putting at the mercy of the elements tens of thousands of Indian troops posted beyond it in this remote but strategically important region along India’s long and disputed border with China.
In the past decade, as China has furiously built up its military and civilian infrastructure on its side of the border, the Rohtang Pass on the Indian side has stood as mute testimony to India’s inability and unwillingness to master its far-flung and rugged outermost reaches.
But now, India is racing to match its rival for regional and global power, building and bolstering airstrips and army outposts, shoring up neglected roads and — finally, decades after it was first proposed — building a tunnel to bypass the deadly Rohtang Pass.
In June, work started on the ambitious project, which will take five years and require boring five miles through the Pir Panjal range. Several other tunnels, which would allow all-weather access to Ladakh, which abuts the Tibetan Plateau, are also in the works.
“What India is belatedly seeking to do is to improve its defenses by upgrading its logistics,” said Brahma Chellaney, an analyst who tracks the India-China relationship at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, in an e-mail. “By building new railroads, airports and highways in Tibet, China is now in a position to rapidly move additional forces to the border to potentially strike at India at a time of its choosing.”
As a result, he said, “The Sino-Indian border remains more unstable than the Pakistani-Indian frontier.”
India and China are hardly enemies, but much of the 2,521-mile border they share is disputed or ill marked. The two countries fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962, and while these days they have, on the surface, a mostly cordial relationship, it is marked by tension over border disputes and the future of Tibet and its leader, the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India.
China’s push to develop its infrastructure on its side of the border — including an all-weather railway to Tibet that includes the world’s highest tunnel, at 16,000 feet — is viewed with considerable suspicion in India.
For much of its history, India has regarded the Himalayas as a form of protection, not a barrier to be overcome, said Rajeswari Rajagopalan, an expert in India-China relations at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“The Indian side has been very slow to develop the border areas,” Ms. Rajagopalan said. “They believed if you improved the infrastructure it would only allow the Chinese to walk into your territory. This was very foolish and naïve.”
Three hundred miles of winding road lead from the town of Manali, through the verdant Kullu Valley, to Ladakh, an alpine desert that abuts the Tibetan plateau.
Tens of thousands of Indian Army troops are stationed among Ladakh’s barren peaks, and the region borders several potential trouble spots, including Aksai Chin, a region that India claims as part of its territory but that China administers. North of Ladakh is the Siachen Glacier, a river of barren ice that India and Pakistan have fought over intermittently since the 1980s. Both countries maintain outposts on the glacier, which sits at an altitude of 20,000 feet.
During the summer, thousands of trucks, laden with supplies to last the harsh mountain winters, rumble up the two roads that lead to Ladakh, from Manali and Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.
The road from Ladakh to Srinagar is also closed in the winter, and because of its proximity to the Line of Control that splits Kashmir between India and Pakistan, Indian officials worry that the road can easily be cut, as it was in 1999, when the two countries clashed at Kargil.
Gurmeet Kanwal, a retired brigadier who runs the Center for Land Warfare Studies, a New Delhi research institution, said India could not afford to be cut off from its most vulnerable reaches half of the year.
“As long as we have these territorial disputes you cannot rule out another border conflict,” Brigadier Kanwal said. “We would like to make sure that we can deploy our forces in the right quantities in the right places.”
The tunnel has been on the drawing board for decades, said P. K. Mahajan, the chief engineer on the $320 million project. He first became involved as a young engineer in 1988, when he helped carry out a feasibility study, five years after the project was first proposed by Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister.
“It is only now that these projects are seeing the light of day,” Mr. Mahajan said.
The challenges of building a long tunnel in the rough environment of the Pir Panjal are enormous. The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain range. They shift and grind, still moving, expanding and shrinking.
That makes life tough for people like Thomas Riedel, a German contractor working at the north end of the tunnel. Because no one is sure what kind of rock will be found inside the mountain, the tunnel will be built using a painstaking method of blasting and digging, rather than the tunnel-boring machines that have revolutionized tunnel construction in recent years.
“Nobody can look inside the mountain,” Mr. Riedel said. “That is where we will find problems.”
Just weeks into what will be at least five years of digging, the workers encountered their first unexpected obstacle: a foot of snow. In June.
The tunnel will sit beneath more than a mile of snow-covered rock for much of its length. Ventilation will pose a huge problem.
People who live on the other side of the Rohtang Pass say the tunnel will transform their lives.
“For six months, we are prisoners,” said Chetan Devi, a schoolteacher who lives in a town beyond the pass. “In the winter, you have to risk your life to go to Manali.”
The tunnel will turn an ordeal of several hours, even in the summer, into a brisk 20-minute trip.
Virender Sharma, the chief government official in Kyelang, the main town of the Lahaul Valley, which sits between Manali and Ladakh, said that last winter 21 people died trying to cross the Rohtang Pass on foot. People were found frozen solid, he said, “sitting with rucksacks on their backs, water bottles at their sides, but they were dead.”
Winters in the Lahaul Valley are a miserable affair, he said.
“During summer, it seems very pleasant,” Mr. Sharma said. “In the winter, there is no light. No vegetables. No mail. Nothing to do in the evening. If there is an emergency, you are practically at the mercy of God.”
For the engineers building the tunnel, it is not merely a matter of logistics, but also a matter of national pride.
“Once this tunnel is complete, it will be an engineering marvel for the whole nation,” Mr. Mahajan said.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.