A Paradox of Developing Strategic Infrastructure Vs Environment concerns: Where the Balance Lies?

 By Vaibhav Kullashri
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On November 12, 2021, Attorney General K K Venugopal made an internal plea to SC asking for permission to build critical infrastructure at the LAC (Line of Actual Control) [1]. He referred to the widening of 809 km of hill road, generally termed as Char Dham road, to provide all-weather connectivity to important pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand. The project was a 12,000 crores flagship initiative started in 2016. However, in 2018, the NGO – Citizens for Greater Doon – challenged the road expansion project on the ground of its potential impact of hill cutting, dumping musk on the fragile environment of the Himalayan state [2].

Taking cognizance, the Supreme Court formed the HPC (High Powered Committee) under environmentalist Ravi Chopra to closely examine the issue. Falling to form a consensus on the ideal width of the hill road, the HPC submitted two reports in July 2021. In September, the SC upheld the minority view of four members, including Chopra, to limit the carriageway width to 5.5 m (along with a 1.5 m raised footpath), based on a March 2018 guideline (Ministry of Road Transport and Highways) MoRTH for mountain highways. On the other hand, the majority view, having 12 government officials, favoured broadening the road.

Later in November, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) appealed for constructing a double lane road to meet the Army’s requirement in the area along the LAC [3]. It is also claimed that the construction of the ‘Char Dham road also involved the strategic angle, which was ignored entirely throughout. Further, recently, the centre told the Supreme Court that they need wider roads in Uttarakhand to transport missiles like Brahmos and other equipment at the border areas alluding to Chinese military build and repeated transgression [4]. It is surprising, ironic, and reflects the sorry act of the state that the center has to boost its strategic move against the unfriendly country openly, nullifying the critical principle of war, i.e., surprise. Thus, generating a debate whether environmental concerns supersede national security challenges? If so, what about the aggressive build-up of the hostile nation on the other side of the border? Thus, can we afford to ignore our national security concerns along the fragile Himalayan border? If not, what can be the possible solution? Also, is not environmental security a critical part of National Security? If yes, why is there no plan to balance the two?

Geostrategic Importance of Uttarakhand and India’s defense Preparedness

Uttarakhand shares a 345 km long boundary, Chamoli and Uttarkashi district, with China [5]. Further, it shares a 275 km long boundary, Udham Singh Nagar and Champawat district, with Nepal. Also, the Pithoragarh district shares a border with both Nepal and China. Further, Uttarakhand is also where two crucial perennial Indian rivers – Ganga and Yamuna- originate.

On 30 August 2021, China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) transgressed 5 km across the LAC in the Barahoti region [6]. These incursions are repeated in nature, and their intensity has increased since the Galwan valley incident in 2020. Such incursion happened when the Indian Army already had a lengthy standoff with the PLA in the Northern sector at Ladakh. Considering the possibility of future skirmish and even full-fledged conventional conflict, Indian armed forces and the state government have been building infrastructure in the region [6]. It includes ramping up the number of helipads at the border districts. Also, the Uttarakhand government had agreed to provide land to the Indian Air Force to set up air defense radar and advance landing ground in the district bordering China – Chamoli, Pithoragarh, and Uttarkashi [7].

Further, the state government has recently offered 40 lakhs to telecom companies to set up communication infrastructure in ‘dark villages’ [8]. The ‘dark villages’ are those, who have no or abysmal power supply, mobile network, and most of these villages lie in the China and Nepal border. It is interesting to note that China is building villages along its border to enhance its claim at LAC [9], and Indian villages at the borders are seeing mass migration due to a lack of infrastructure and opportunities [10]. However, there have been efforts to reverse migration in the hilly state; still, the pace of such efforts has to be pondered. Thus, the development of basic infrastructure is crucial for the defense of fragile LAC, but development at the border area is coming at the cost of environmental degradation, as claimed by a report which opposes the broadening of Char Dham road, which will act as a feeder road at the forward posts along the Niti and Mana pass. So, the question generally arises: how to balance national security and environmental concerns?

Addressing the Environmental concerns

It is to ponder that national security can never be protected until and unless environmental concerns are addressed properly. Environmental security is itself one of the critical aspects of national security. Even if we are able to secure our border by massive infrastructure build-up and not the environment, we are not securing our national security, and vice-versa is also true. Thus, the solution lies in being transparent and addressing the issue cohesively and inclusively.

As the fact remains and is generally known to all, the Himalayan region is sensitive to development projects and requires special attention. The project providing all-weather connectivity to ‘Char Dham’ has much fallout, as mentioned in the minority view of the HPC [11]. First, it violated many existing rules. Second, as many ground reports suggest, the project misused the old clearance on tree cutting, and at many stretches, work started without proper clearances.

Also, the argument of the HPC in its report cannot be ignored, which says that a disaster-resilient road is much more reliable than a broader road that can be prone to frequent landslides and blockages affecting day-to-day life of the ordinary people in the region. It can be counterproductive in an hour of the crisis and add a burden to the security forces. Considering the case of the 2013 flash flood in Uttarakhand, it is an accepted fact, and also, as the report of various government agencies [12] suggests that there is no link between the widening of the road in hilly areas and the flash flood in the state. However, it cannot be denied that the heavy construction in the fragile environment has enhanced the scope of the tragedy in the lower region, leading to a massive loss of life and property.

Also, the country’s water security is critically dependent on the Himalayan state, and despite its abundance, water scarcity is becoming a severe issue in the region [13]. Unwanted and unregulated development can do more harm than gain, which needs to be pondered upon.

Thus, the project, which involves national security implications, needs greater accountability and clarity, which is missing in this case. However, it does not imply that the environmental issues will supersede the defense requirement of the country. Therefore, now the question arises what can be the possible solution?

Policy Recommendations

The solution lies in the thorough assessment of the projects indicating their criticality and clarity of execution. A project like this needs a thorough in-house discussion with all stakeholders, thus eliminating the scope of revealing the secret strategic manoeuvre. It means the first and foremost principle of war – Selection and Maintenance of Aim- needs to be adequately addressed in the projects, which involves a strategic angle. Following this, the government needs to keep the element of surprise alive by keeping all stakeholders informed with utmost transparency. Furthermore, the government and the stakeholders need to be more transparent in their approach and consider environmental issues because it also affects national security beyond repair. Further, the infrastructure development projects crucial to national security and designated as critical by defense forces must not queue for clearance like others and must be designated as a national priority. Thus, such infrastructure must be built at all costs with all the technology available to minimize environmental concerns and boost national security.

Also, we also need to look into other aspects of national security besides the deployment of the security forces, which in a way is more critical, and these are –

  • First and foremost, the development of the state’s remote areas, having borders with China, completely lacking basic facilities like electricity, connectivity, education, and Medical. This deprivation of basic amenities leads to mass migration in such regions, thus, eliminating the country’s first line of defense – Common people in remote areas. Various reports and also the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat [14][15], has highlighted this aspect that mass migration from hilly areas of Uttarakhand can be a potential national security threat.
  • Second, the development of the tourist spots and relaxing the norms of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in the border areas (keeping the local sentiment into consideration) as discussed by the state government of Uttarakhand last year [16] but not materialized. It will benefit the region and nation in two ways; first, it will keep a check on migration while improving the scope of employment in the region. Second, the security forces will get additional support in the form of surveillance from the local population.

Conclusion

The ambit of the environmental security is included in the scope of national security and can never be/ must not be seen as a separate issue. Thus, considering the fragility of the Himalayan state, the environmental concerns must not go unheard at any cost, and the focus must be on the sustainability of the developmental projects rather than showing agility in constructing those projects. However, critical infrastructure concerning national security must be built with all the technology available to minimize environmental concerns.

Endnotes

  1. Jay Mazoomdar, “Explained: The Char Dham Road Debate” The Indian Express, 12 November 2021.Available onhttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/char-dham-road-debate-supreme-court-army-7618880/,  Accessed on 14 November 2021.
  2. Ananthakrishnan G, “Char Dham road: BrahMos needs to be taken to LAC, needs wide roads, says govt”, The Indian Express, 12 November 2021. Available onhttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/widening-char-dham-road-can-we-ignore-defence-needs-for-environment-asks-sc-7615709/, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  3. Shikha Goyal, “Which Indian state boundary with China?”, Jagran Josh,19 July 2019. Available on https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/which-indian-states-share-boundaries-with-china-1563528635-1, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  4. NDTV News Desk, “100 Chinese Troops Crossed Over Into Uttarakhand In August: Reports”,NDTV,30 September 2021.Available onhttps://www.ndtv.com/india-news/100-chinese-troops-crossed-over-into-uttarakhand-in-august-reports-2559190, accessed on 15 November 2021.
  5. Lalmani Verma, IAF plans to set up Air Defense Radars in 3 Uttarakhand districts”, 12 September 2020. Available onhttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/as-china-nepal-tensions-rise-this-is-how-uttarakhand-is-upgrading-defence-infra-on-the-border-6596005/, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  6. Vineet Upadhaya, “Uttrakhand offers Rs 40 lakh to telecom companies to set up mobile towers in ‘dark villages’, 05 September 2020. Available athttps://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/sep/05/uttarakhand-offers-rs-40-lakh-to-telecom-companies-to-set-up-mobile-towers-in-dark-villages-2192853.html, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  7. Rajeshwar Pillai Rajagopalan, “Did China Create New Facts on the Ground Along the LAC With India?”, 12 November 2021. Available athttps://thediplomat.com/2021/11/did-china-create-new-facts-on-the-ground-along-the-lac-with-india/, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  8. Rahul Singh Shekhawat, “Migration in Uttarakhand: As crisis plagues hill state, govt survey finds 50% villagers left gram Panchayats in search of jobs”, 05 February 2019. Accessed onhttps://www.firstpost.com/india/migration-in-uttarakhand-as-crisis-plagues-hill-state-govt-survey-finds-50-villagers-left-gram-panchayats-in-search-of-jobs-6029411.html, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  9. Jay Mazoomdar, “Explained: The Char Dham Road Debate” The Indian Express, 12 November 2021.Available onhttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/char-dham-road-debate-supreme-court-army-7618880/, Accessed on 14 November 2021.
  10. PTI, “No link between Uttarakhand floods, highway construction for Char Dham project: Government”, The Economic Times, 22 March 2021. Available onhttps://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/no-link-between-uttarakhand-floods-highway-construction-for-char-dham-project-government/articleshow/81634459.cms?from=mdr, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  11. Hemant Ojha, Kautauv Raj Neupane, Chandra Lal Pandey, Vishal Singh, Roshan Bajracharya, and NgamindraDahal, “Scarcity Amidst Plenty: Lower Himalayan Cities Struggling for Water Security”, MDPI, 13 December 2021.
  12. Deep Joshi, “Exodus from border areas of Uttrakhand a security threat: Report’, The Hindustan Times,07 May 2018.Available onhttps://www.hindustantimes.com/dehradun/exodus-from-border-areas-of-uttarakhand-a-security-threat-report/story-qMK4DcynFsYjlKJJt012NN.html, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  13. PNS, “Migration from border areas bad for national security: Gen Rawat”, The Pioneer, 21 April 2021. Available onhttps://www.dailypioneer.com/2021/state-editions/migration-from-border-areas-bad-for-national-security–gen-rawat.html, accessed on 14 November 2021.
  14. Divya A, “Explained: Can border tourism in Uttarakhand act as a second line of defense against Chinese incursions?” The Indian Express, 13 September 2020. Available athttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/border-tourism-in-uttarakhand-lac-china-6589409/, accessed on 14 November 2021.