In flexing its military muscle, India is finally set to act on pleas to unite this isolated region with the rest of the country.
Due to its proximity to the long-contested Indo-Chinese frontier, Ladakh would seem to be of significant strategic importance for India. Yet for all the pledges and proposals made by Indian lawmakers over the years to build infrastructure of the area, it is only recently that New Delhi has finally started to inch towards fulfilling these promises. As is perhaps to be assumed, it has been military motives that have finally led policymakers to begin putting real money behind their promises. But with new roads and what appears to be an incredibly ambitious railway project – the first of its kind – now on the anvil promising to connect Ladakh to the rest of India, it is Ladakhis themselves who could well benefit the most.
The first signs of movement came last year when, after more than four decades of closure, the Indian Air Force revived two old airbases in the eastern part of Ladakh. These bases were certainly well-situated from a military perspective – Daulat Beg Oldi and Fukche are, respectively, just eight and two-and-a-half kilometres south of the Line of Actual Control – and thus offer an understandable first step in re-opening the region. In recent weeks, reconstruction work has also begun on the Neoma base, slightly farther inland, which will likely be operational by the end of the year. (The Air Force is also planning to reopen the Chushul airfield, in the same area, in the near future.) All three bases were built to facilitate troop movement in the run-up to the 1962 war between India and China, but were abandoned by the Indian Army in 1966, after an earthquake damaged the airstrips.
Since then, New Delhi seemed to have all but forgotten Ladakh. Some suggest that these four decades of negligence might even have resulted from the prevailing insecurity, including in defence circles, that India would eventually lose ground to future Chinese aggression, thus leading to a moratorium in development projects. According to this logic, then, the current refocusing on Ladakh could subsequently have more to do with a new mindset in New Delhi than on anything happening on the ground in Kashmir or China itself. Indeed, the recently revived interest in Ladakh is being seen by many as a re-assertion of Indian military strength in the borderlands. “India is a growing power and it has to assert itself,” says Phunchok Stobdan, a defence analyst in New Delhi. “Gone are the days when New Delhi was thinking that it had to vacate Ladakh for China. Now it has started thinking in terms of building infrastructure in the region. I see it more as New Delhi’s posture of asserting itself in the region.”
As much as geo-strategic motivations may account for the recent decisions, Indian Air Force officials have been quick to state that the bases would also be used to promote tourism. Since the mid-1970s, India has made a concerted effort to encourage tourism in Ladakh, despite continuing to keep a significant military presence in the region to counter fears of both Chinese and Pakistani incursion. Indeed, over the past few years India has even decided to open up part of the highly militarised Siachen glacier, nearby, to tourists, though only in officially sanctioned tour groups. This decision has naturally created much controversy, with Islamabad fervently against the opening-up of the still-disputed glacier.
While the re-opening of the four air bases might excite certain hawks and defence mavens, other plans have many more people talking – particularly in Ladakh itself. Beyond airfields, New Delhi is also contemplating building a 489-km railway line from Bilaspur District, in Himachal Pradesh, to Leh (and 20 stations in between), including plans for six passenger trains (though only two in the wintertime) and nine goods trains. Early estimates suggest that some 6000 passengers would ride these rails every day, while nearly four million tonnes of goods could be carried per year. The two existing road links to Ladakh – from Manali in Himachal and Srinagar – remain closed during the winter months, due to heavy snowfall. In late April, Indian Railways finalised a feasibility report for this project, which has since been submitted to the Railway Ministry for approval – with the government rushing to beat the elections, some observers have noted.
If the plan goes through – which at this point appears very likely – the railway project would be a culmination of a century-long undertaking. Attempts to bring a rail line to the Kashmir Valley have been in the works since 1898, when the idea was first proposed by the Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh. He was eager to set up a rail link to Srinagar, as he used to shuttle between Srinagar and Jammu, the summer and winter capitals of the state. But no headway was made on this during his lifetime. In 2001, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced a 290-km rail link to Srinagar as a “national project”, with 2007 as the stated deadline for completion. Although work on the full rail line – which is to run from Udhampur, 55 km north of Jammu, to Baramula, on the northwestern edge of the Kashmir Valley – has become increasingly bogged down, isolated legs of the full length have been completed on which trains are now plying. The completion date, however, has now been pushed off to at least 2015.
Of course, the new Ladakh rail line is also expected to play a vital role in ensuring faster delivery of supplies to troops posted in Ladakh and Siachen. The project, which is estimated to cost some INR 220 billion, has the strong backing of the army. During an Army Commander’s Conference in New Delhi in late April, officials strongly advocated improving supply lines to Ladakh – a longstanding military demand. In addition to the railroad, conference attendees suggested building an all-weather road as well as new tunnels to further connect the area to the rest of India. The army’s enthusiasm for these new initiatives is clear. In the words of one defence official, “If India has to emerge as a power in the region and keep its neighbours at bay, connectivity to the vulnerable frontiers has to be strengthened.”
In addition, India’s decision to put Ladakh on the country’s railway map is also seen as a direct response to China’s beefing-up of its own border infrastructure, in particular the Qinghai-Lhasa railway link (and accompanying rumours of an extension of that line to the Nepali border), as well as strengthened airbases along the border with India. Indeed, the Tibet railway would be the only other competition – and template – for planners of what would be one of the only rail lines higher than 5000 metres above sea level anywhere in the world.
For the residents of Ladakh, however, the decision to lay tracks to Leh is an irrefutably a positive one – whatever the motivations. “I feel really happy to learn that New Delhi is working on a proposal to build a railway line connecting Ladakh to the outside world,” said Mohammed Ali Tak, a Kargil resident. “Though it is going to take years and I don’t know whether I will be there to see it for myself, our future generations will definitely benefit from this.” He continued: “We have also heard that India is building airbases in the region, but a railway line would really provide something for the people.”