Updated: Feb 21
Image Courtesy: The New Indian Express
Rahul Bedi (Bedi, 26 February 2021)[i] wrote in the Wire that “The hoopla over the approval accorded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in imminently procuring 118 indigenously developed Mk-1A Arjun main battle tanks (MBTs) for the Indian Army for Rs 8,350 crore, appears misplaced, considering the operational and logistical handicaps encasing this overweight platform”. The article underpinned an important dimension to strategic calculus – Integrated Infrastructure Planning. Military and other sources cited in the article point to the un-usability of tanks heavier than 50 tons in Punjab (and elsewhere) owing to the carrying capacity of the bridges, culverts, and country roads in areas closer to the borders.
Infrastructure Development – Perspectives
India witnessed a mammoth push in infrastructure development from 1998 when the government launched the Bharatmala Project. Commencing from 2000-01 till 2019-20, growth in road infrastructure has visibly increased to the delight of common citizens. Brief comparative statistics in road infrastructure is given below:
(as on 31st March)National HighwaysState HighwaysDistrict RoadsRural RoadsUrban RoadsProject RoadsTotal
Source: Ministry of Road Transport and Highways Annual Report 2019-20, Page 104 (Appendix 14)[i]
This mammoth growth has been the result of pressures of globalization, economic liberalization, political vision, and executive commitment. It has also been made possible by the consistent evolution of planning and executing agencies. In the preceding era, planning was largely left to central and state planning commissions which were affected by vagaries of finances, politics, and executive compulsions in the controlling or competing ministries. CPWD and State PWD remained the predominant agencies that involved themselves in the execution of road works. While civilian road infrastructure was subjected to these, roads in border areas for military purposes were left to the concern of the Ministry of Defence and its budgetary constraints towards allocations for the Border Roads Organization (BRO). Coordination between CPWD, State PWD, and the BRO did come through on specific projects where civilian populations were involved.
The pressures of economic development in the liberalization era post-1998, as mentioned above, brought about a substantial change in the planning and executing process also. Apart from nominal changes in the name of the ministry, the Planning Commission was replaced effectively by Niti Aayog and undermentioned agencies were pressed in for road development across the country:
National Highways Authority of India (Autonomous under Ministry of Road Transport and Highways), formed in 1988
Indian Road Construction Corporation (Public Sector Corporation), formed in 1976
National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd[i]. – NHIDC (Public Sector Corporation), formed in 2014
In the framework of institutional developments, the formation of NHIDC is significantly inconsistent with the Look and Act East Policy. It is especially focused on North-Eastern states and border areas, thus giving specific impetus to India’s strategic concerns in the North East[ii].
While at the national level, the institutions for planning and execution underwent changes, on ground level viz., the State, district and Panchayat levels also new institutions came up due to the strengthening of the third pillar of governance, the Panchayati Raj, through the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution. Briefly, they encompassed Village-Block-District Panchayat Standing Committees, District Planning Committees, and State Planning Committees[iii]. Through these agencies, developmental projects including that of roads[iv] (which is in the Concurrent List of Indian Constitution) are projected to State and Central Finance Commissions for allocation of funds.
Strategic Calculus and Infrastructure
In their present format, the above frameworks do not have any provision for consultation with field or formation-level military organizations. Thus, the planning process for road infrastructure is essentially based on extant and anticipated civilian use based on popular demands, political compulsions, or expanding demands of economic infrastructure needs. The observation made in the cited news item in the Wire needs to be understood in this context. This understanding is also equally applicable to states/UTs that are on LOC, LOAC, and IB.
In the context of the Sino-Indian standoff in eastern Ladakh, the government of India announced INR 784 cr Border Area Development Program (BADP), essentially aiming to enhance connectivity[v]. Similarly, in the budget presentation on 01 February 2021, a total outlay of INR 4.78 cr was made for defense out of which a total of Rs 1,35,060 crore has been set aside for capital expenditure that includes purchasing new weapons, aircraft, warships, and other military hardware[vi].
The government also announced the purchase of MiG 29s, SU 30s, Tejas LCA, MBT Arjun Mk IA, and a variety of other military hardware. Implicit ineffective deployment of these weapon and support systems for their effective utilization is the movement of logistics and troops by road, rail, and air to wherever they need be, especially the border areas up to the lines of control. By common understanding, it is also important to appreciate that amongst the three modes, roads play a vital role since the bulk of the logistics, especially closer to border areas, move by road.
In the current and foreseeable future where India will be a dominant regional player and major global player (if not already), connectivity for economic as well as strategic objectives will become crucial for it to pursue its national interests. This observation is not a fall out of the recent lessons from the Sino-Indian stand-off. It essentially rises from India’s own objectives for economic and regional-multilateral cooperation frameworks. For example, in the 14 priority areas of BIMSTEC, India is the lead country in four areas, viz Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime, Transport & Communication, Tourism, and Environment and Disaster Management.
It is not a matter of supposition or presumption that the ability to defend own frontiers and enforce own will on recalcitrant adversaries in our national interest is a necessary precondition for stability, growth, and progress. To do so, the nation’s armed forces become the tool. However, for this tool to discharge its intended tasks, sound infrastructure remains a prerequisite. India suffered an ignominious defeat in 1961, despite having the most battle-proven armed forces in Asia-Pacific (aside from Japan). When the sentiments are set aside, lack of critical infrastructure in border areas stands as one of the fundamental lessons from the 1962 episode. This was highlighted by Bhartendu Kumar Singh (Singh, 2013)[vii] in his analysis of the Henderson Brooks Report on the 1962 war in the following words:
Logistics and Infrastructure. The ground reality is that India has made only marginal progress since the sixties. The efforts of a dedicated organization like the Border Roads Organization (BRO) notwithstanding, India still doesn’t have fair-weather roads to ensure round the year movement of troops and supplies. While there has been a further push to road building plans in the Northeast, the Central tracts still remain neglected. The Terai area adjacent to Nepal still remains poorly served. If China were to attack India alternatively through (in collusion with) Nepal, it would be a cakewalk for them to reach the Gangetic plains.
In the present times, when India has demonstrated its will to safeguard its interests (whether in terms of Balakot strikes or the who-blinks-first Dokhlam or even the Ladakh stand-off or otherwise), the time is ripe for India to reformat the energetic infrastructure initiatives that have come to define it as a country on the move – in top gear.
In the context of the opinion expressed above, it is necessary that the planning process considers integrating the military establishment into the calculus of infrastructure development for strategic gains. The following are specifically suggested:
At the national level, MoD and MoRTH must have a consultative mechanism with representatives at the senior level from the Services HQs. All road network and enhancement plans across the country must be studied by Services HQ reps and recommendations made by them for strategic use of portions of those plans are to be dovetailed into the overall ministerial plans, apart from civilian transport needs. This especially applies to NHIDC and its plans for projects in North East.
At the field level (so to say in military terms), State and District Planning Authorities must have representatives from Corps, Division or Brigade level officers. The need for an extension, up-gradation, or integration of local development plans for military use should form a fundamental part of the planning process. The Lucknow-Agra Expressway with dual-use capability by Indian Air Force aircraft (TOI, October 24, 2017)[viii] is a classic example of how this is possible. However, such practices of developing multipurpose infrastructure need to become the norm.
An institutionalized framework for such coordination needs to be put in place specifically in States that have LAC/LOAC/IB in so far as Railways and airports are also concerned.
The Integrated Defense Staff under CDS is obviously the best suitable nodal military institution since CDS already has appropriate civilian officers of required seniority blended into it. Appropriate level civilian officials of the MoRTH, MoCA, MoS and Ministry of Railways could be either seconded to CDS or military officers of required seniority seconded to these ministries. This would facilitate the addressing of strategic concerns related to infrastructure in a comprehensive manner.
The mechanisms suggested above have an additional advantage since perspective planning through the integrated mechanism will minimize specialized needs spurred by momentary circumstances, resulting in better utilization of budgetary resources.
War and armed confrontation will, and should, always remain the last tool that the polity should employ to protect and further its national interests. However, from Chanakya, Clauswitz and Sun Tzu to eminent strategic thinkers, being prepared is the first dictum that has been held above all other precepts. In an era when India is poised to emerge as a lead nation in Asia-Pacific, integrating civilian infrastructure planning with military necessities will sit well with such derived wisdom.
(Dr R Srinivasan is an independent researcher and the Managing Editor of Electronic Journal of Social and Strategic Studies (www.ejsss.net.in) He can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed are personal.)
[i] The National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) is a Public Sector Undertaking under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Govt. of India. It was incorporated on 18 July 2014 with the objective to develop National Highways and other infrastructure at a fast pace in the North East and Strategic areas of the country sharing International Borders.
[ii] See: https://morth.nic.in/sites/default/files/Ministry%20Annual%20Report_2019-20.pdf for specific road projects by NHIDC in the North East.
[iii] Manual for Integrated District Planning, Planning Commission of India, See: http://www.mpplanningcommission.gov.in/distplan/Infopack_of_DPP_MP/Resource_Documents/Integrated%20District%20Planning%20Manual%20English.pdf
[iv] Article 243G, 11th Schedule to the Constitution, Item 13 puts Roads, culverts, bridges, ferries, waterways and other means of communication, within the purview of the Panchayat Union. See: https://legislative.gov.in/constitution-seventy-third-amendment-act-1992
[v] Singh, Vijaita (June 03, 2020). India to boost infrastructure in areas along China border, The Hindu (online). Retrieved from: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-to-boost-infrastructure-in-areas-along-china-border/article31741145.ece
[vi] PTI (February 01, 2021). Defence Budget 2021: Rs 4.78 lakh crore allocated for defence, 19 percent increase in capital outlay, Economic Times. Retrieved from: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/defence-budget-2021-rs-4-78-lakh-crore-allocated-for-defence-19-percent-increase-in-capital-outlay/articleshow/80632540.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
[vii] Singh, Dr. Bhartendu Kumar (2013). Henderson Brooks Report and India’s China Challenge, Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLII, No. 591, January-March 2013. See: https://usiofindia.org/publication/usi-journal/henderson-brooks-report-and-indias-china-challenge/
[viii] TOI (October 24, 2017). IAF jets land on Lucknow-Agra Expressway: 10 points, Retrieved from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/iaf-jets-to-land-on-agra-lucknow-expressway-today-10-points/articleshow/61195274.cms