Infrastructure Development along India’s Borders with China

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Political Economy of Infrastructure Development in the Sino-Indian Border Areas’, China-India Brief #22, Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, 12–25 February 2014.

China occupies a growing space in the daily imagination of ordinary Indians. While they might be not be conscious of the presence of Chinese components in their mobile phones, Indians are increasingly aware of the wide gulf that exists with China in the provision of such essentials as good physical infrastructure. And nowhere perhaps, is this consciousness stronger than along India’s underdeveloped borders areas with China. From Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, border communities are aware of the stark differences in road, telecom and other forms of physical and social infrastructure between what is available on the Indian side and in Tibet.

In the run-up to the 1962 border conflict with China, the Indian government did take note of the shortcomings of physical infrastructure in the border regions but was unable to get various agencies of the central and state governments to function in a coordinated and timely manner to plug the gaps. Following the conflict, however, the combination of an Indian official psyche scarred by defeat and general ignorance of Chinese intentions and capabilities created a policy of infrastructure development in the border areas that was remarkable for its shortsightedness. The policy involved keeping India’s border areas deliberately underdeveloped and lacking in roads and telecommunications in order to prevent another instance of easy access to the plains for the Chinese army.

Indian policy has since been reversed due to many factors. These include greater confidence in the country’s military abilities, increased understanding of China’s own intentions and weaknesses, the availability of economic resources for infrastructure development in the border areas, and, the need to address the development deficit in these far-flung border areas. The question is, of course, what is the level of priority accorded to each of these reasons.

There is still in the Indian military establishment, a dominant sense of suspicion involving China – a legacy of 1962. Combined with economic liberalization and India’s improved relations with the West, particularly, the United States, there is greater access for the Indian military to Western military technology and equipment. A major justification for such acquisitions is the ‘China threat’ theory buttressed by the experience of 1962. But such justifications would not matter if there was not also a concomitant effort to be seen as being ready to employ such newly-acquired capabilities in case of another Chinese attack. Hence, infrastructure development in the border regions – from roads to telecom is as much a military imperative as it is an issue of facilitating local development.

a mobile services shop in distant Anini, Dibang Valley district in Arunachal Pradesh
a mobile phone services shop in distant Anini, capital of Dibang Valley district in Arunachal Pradesh

There are still other considerations that the huge investments in infrastructure development come alloyed with. Primarily, these are political objectives and possibilities for economic rent-seeking as is the case in other parts of India.

A local political leader is expected to share the goods of political office with other members of his community or tribe. These goods include those derived from corruption in the form of siphoning off of funds from various development projects, including infrastructure projects. Further, in Arunachal Pradesh which has several tribes but often each very small in number, such corruption is often seen as ‘democratic’ since the benefits percolate down to practically every member.

However, low education levels, lack of awareness and, to an extent inter-tribal competition among other factors also combine to create obstacles for infrastructure development. In this context, it is worth remembering that all land in a state like Arunachal Pradesh is private land belonging either to the individual or the community. Thus, individuals or groups in the quest for greater compensation can hold up land acquisition for infrastructure development.

These factors are especially germane when one moves to discussion about infrastructure development that is being carried out with private sector participation, especially dams in Arunachal. These dams are part of the Indian state’s desire to establish first-user rights on the waters of the Siang (as the Yarlung Tsangpo is called on entering Arunachal) and the other tributaries of the Brahmaputra, in competition with the projects of dam-building and water-diversion projects that the Chinese are believed to be engaged in upstream. The central and state governments have a preference for mega hydroelectric dams that would produce far in excess capacity than what either Arunachal or the rest of the Northeast India could conceivably use given the region’s poor industrial capacity. Further, some of the Indian private companies involved possess little experience of such infrastructure development but have been attracted by the huge monies involved.

However, if they imagined that land acquisition and construction would be easier in an economically underdeveloped and socially backward region, they have been disabused of the notion by a host of local environmental and cultural preservation movements as well as opposition from the central government’s own Environment Ministry. It is somewhat noteworthy then that central government recently replaced its Environment Minister with the Petroleum Minister, someone with a reputation for getting things done.

Across India’s border regions, development initiatives and fears about their consequences have led to splits – inter-generational and political – within various communities. In Ladakh, for example, there are concerns among certain interest groups that better infrastructure actually creates opportunities for an influx of domestic Indian tourists who are first, not as high value customers as Western tourists, and second, create greater environmental impact than the considerably limited numbers that currently visit the region. In Arunachal, meanwhile, the entry of labourers from elsewhere in India required for planned infrastructure development it is feared, will overwhelm smaller local populations. These developments are particularly fraught for what is the largest state in Northeast India, a region that is already the site of various forms of political instability, including ethnic insurgencies.

In the end, it remains to be seen whether the Indian state is able to find a balance in its infrastructure development projects between the imperatives of national security, political accommodation, cultural sensitivity and environmental sustainability.

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