50 yrs after war, road that troubled Army remains tricky as ever

During the 1962 war with China, the Indian Army had found itself handicapped by the absence of a proper motorable road up to these dizzy heights in the Eastern Himalayas. Volumes have been written about how bad whatever was called a road used to be. Hundreds of soldiers made it to the front on foot through the rugged mountains.

Fifty years later, the road to Tawang, and beyond to the international boundary, is still barely motorable. More than 250 km of the 329-km stretch from Tezpur to Tawang is being redone under a massive double-laning programme; this has only added to a traveller's headache. The original target date for completion was December 2012 but December 2014 is now the "final" target.

"This is probably the worst highway in India. And being of such strategic importance, we wonder why the work has been so slow. Travel time from Tezpur to here, which was about 16 hours till say five years ago, can today take even up to 48 hours," rued Jimisang Jebisow, president of the All Arunachal Pradesh Motor Transport Federation, an organisation of the owners of over 10,000 commercial vehicles.

This monsoon, the federation enforced a 24-hour chakka bandh on the highway. People even damaged a few vehicles belonging to the Border Roads Organisation that has been engaged in the double-laning.

"This road is the lifeline not just of the Army but also of the people of four districts. The tourism sector is also heavily dependent on this road," said tour operator Tsering Wange, whose Himalayan Holidays brings the highest number of tourists to the state.

This zigzag road, which also crosses the 13,800-foot Sela Pass, gets between 300 and 400 vehicles on a weekday. This is in addition to three to four Army convoys per day, apart from over 100 trucks, dumpers, bulldozers and road-rollers working on the double-laning.

"We understand that the people are having a tough time. But we are also working against various odds to complete the double-laning as early as possible," said Brig Rohit Kapoor, chief engineer of Project Vartak, the BRO wing responsible for roads in western Arunachal Pradesh.

The BRO is struggling with a shortage of boulders, labour and stone-crushers. "While we require about six lakh cubic metres of boulders per year, we are currently getting only about two lakh cubic metres," Brig Kapoor said. In the absence of large stone-crushers, a major portion of work is being done manually.

"Acute shortage of labour is another problem. Earlier we used to get thousands of labourers from Jharkhand, Orissa and other states. But with various ongoing projects there, very few labourers are actually coming to this remote area," Brig Kapoor said. Arunachal Pradesh being sparsely populated, there is very little availability of local labour.

Going by the requirement of 6,000 workers for each of the three Task Forces along the road, the BRO's total requirement of labourers stands at around 18,000. "Currently we are hardly getting about 30 per cent," Brig Kapoor said.

The weather often plays havoc, with six to months of rains in the lower reaches and two-three months of snowfall in the upper region, leaving hardly two or three months of actual working time. "Moreover, we cannot stop the traffic flow while carrying out the work. And with the Eastern Himalayas being relatively young and unstable, landslides often block the road for days," the chief engineer added.

Another problem arises out of a wildlife sanctuary that the road touches between Bhalukpong and Tenga. Environment clearance for parts of the highway is still pending.

Chief Minister Nabam Tuki and Governor J J Singh have urged the Centre to expedite the road construction work. Tuki, who met the prime minister recently, also pressed for speeding up construction of an alternative road from Tawang to Guwahati through Bhutan.

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