China-India border dispute
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Nepalese construction workers build roads with their babies tied to their backs. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

Hundreds of workers flock to ‘roof of the world’ as India pushes infrastructure near China border

  • More workers are arriving in the region as India works to build and improve strategic roads leading to the LAC, the disputed border with China
  • They are kept busy as temperatures dip to freezing even in the height of summer, with bridges, airports and helipads all being constructed
Amid a drizzle and gusts of chilly wind, Anika pulls taut a rope tied to a shovel held by Chandrika as they mix a pile of cement with sand by the side of the road. The women, both in their early 20s, have their babies fastened to their backs by a sheet of cloth while they work near the mountain pass of Khardung La – which at an elevation of more than 17,000 feet is one of the world’s highest motorable passes – in India’s Ladakh region.
Hailing from neighbouring Nepal, they are among the hundreds of workers employed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), the road-construction wing of the Indian army, to work on the strategic arteries leading to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the poorly demarcated, disputed 3,488km border between India and China.

Workers such as Anika and Chandrika, who were born and brought up in Himalayan villages, are in demand by the BRO because they are already acclimatised to the high altitude. As the Indian army steps up the building of infrastructure in the region, they are kept at work for more than eight hours a day as temperatures dip to freezing and below, even during summer.

India is not just looking to build roads – new army bases, helipads, and bridges are all part of the push that has come after its troops clashed with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Galwan Valley in June last year. The most deadly face-off between the two countries in the past five decades claimed the lives of 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers.

Since then, tens of thousands of additional troops and additional weaponry have been sent to the border by both sides in a massive military build-up. However, Beijing and New Delhi earlier this month agreed to disengage from Gogra Post, a key patrol point in eastern Ladakh, ending a border-talks stalemate that lasted close to six months.

“Work has started on all the strategic roads and this is the first time the government seems serious about building infrastructure in the region,” said Konchonk Stanzin, an elected councillor from Chushul village, which is close to the border.

The poor condition of the roads leading to Chushul previously made it tough for even heavy army trucks to move. “Now the roads are being widened and blacktopped,” he said. “There are earthmovers working everywhere. It is a huge task but the government seems to have no option given the military requirements.”

The harsh Himalayan region of Ladakh – often referred to as “the roof of the world” – is one of the most elevated places on the planet, with temperatures dipping as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter.

This has long made connectivity with the region challenging for New Delhi, a worrisome prospect when supplies need to be delivered to the military. For six months of the year, beginning in early October, Ladakh is cut off from the rest of the world. During this time, the aerial route is the only way in or out, though it costs close to four times more than using the roads.

China-India border dispute: both countries pull back soldiers from eastern Ladakh’s Gogra region

“The tensions with China have pushed us hard to make all-weather roads to increase connectivity with the region, and ensure that the internal roads are in good condition,” said a top Indian army official posted in the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Building infrastructure is our first priority.”

Just three months after the Galwan clash, India started work on the Zojila Tunnel, which will connect Ladakh with the Kashmir valley and keep the two regions connected throughout the year.

Indian army trucks in a transit camp in Ladakh. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

Construction is going on day and night for the 14.2km tunnel, which will cost an estimated US$1.4 billion and is being built at an altitude of 3,000m, though it is unlikely to be completed before the end of 2026. India is also working on alternate routes to Ladakh from the state of Himachal Pradesh, involving the construction of several tunnels.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh in June inaugurated two BRO “centres of excellence” that are aimed at speeding up the construction of 60,000km of roads, 560km of bridges, 19 airfields and four tunnels – most of which will be near or leading to the LAC. In the same month, he also undertook two highly publicised visits to inaugurate 63 new bridges and 12 roads across seven states that border China.

India is also working to strengthen aerial connectivity within Ladakh. As per top defence officials and multiple media reports, construction is under way on four new airports and around 40 helipads across the region.

These helipads – 25 of which will be close to the LAC – will be suitable landing sites for United States-manufactured Chinook helicopters, which were widely used during the American campaign in Afghanistan and have been a regular sight in Ladakh since the Galwan clash.

China-India border dispute: New Delhi talks up infrastructure build-up in strategy shift against Beijing

“There was hardly any infrastructure for us to base troops at so many locations near the LAC, let alone during the winters when everything freezes,” said an Indian Army general posted in Ladakh, who also asked for his identity to be withheld. “Now we face for the first time the challenge of stationing thousands of additional troops, even in winter.”

To this end, the army is also building ration and fuel stores, shielding structures for ammunition and machinery, along with bringing in more road-building equipment.

A bulldozer working on a road near Pangong Tso lake where Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed. Photo: Kamran Yousuf

“With troops on the ground, there is more weaponry, and like our soldiers it has to be taken care of,” the general said. “For instance, we have to build a special kind of structure to base our tanks to keep them battle ready.”

This means more workers such as Anika and Chandrika are arriving in Ladakh, as the government eases Covid-19 restrictions.

“We are pushing as much as possible because we have a window to work till October, after that routes will be shut,” said a BRO official overseeing the construction of a road near Pangong Tso lake.

“Once we are able to fix our routes and basic infrastructure, we will shift focus to building permanent radar installations and other infrastructure, because this cold desert is seemingly going to remain hot for quite some time.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘Roof of the world’ abuzz after border skirmish