Saturday, May 18, 2013

Aksai Chin-3: Lack of Political Will

A opinion piece by Ravi Rikhye - editor of Orbat.Com:

The recent debacle in the Depsang Plains, where India was in danger of losing 750-square-kilometrs of its territory to Chinese encroachment, has been blamed on logistics. Or rather, the lack of logistics. The Chinese have these beautiful roads, which are no longer simply gravel tracks, but are graded asphalt highways and secondary roads. On our side, Indians learned to their dismay that between Sasoma and DBO a road was started and abandoned, and a road from Shyok Village to Murgo has also been abandoned. The Indian media to this day often functions as a government broadcasting agency, announcing the start of projects, but never following through. So, for example, the press will tell us that the government has embarked on an emergency road building program where funding is not to be used as an excuse for delays, but does not tell us the road in question never even got started.
Should the citizen ask why, s/he will get no answer. In matters of northern policy, the Government of India is still the Imperial Government in Delhi, and sees no reason why pesky citizens with pesky questions should be allowed to disturb the serenity of the Government as it continues to give away to the Chinese, by default, ever larger areas of Indian territory. If the citizen should have a contact or two among official circles, this is the story that s/he is told:
The Army blames the BRO, which blames the Ministry of the Environment and the Army. Environment is blamed because it repeatedly stops projects; the army is blamed because it won’t provide security for the road builders, who are vulnerable to threats and harassment by Chinese patrols. Everyone blames the terrain and the weather, which even the most prejudiced person can agree is plain terrible.
What none of this explains is why the Chinese and Pakistanis not only built a two-lane highway through the Karokarams, in terrain and weather similar to Ladakh. And now that highway is being expanded to six-lanes. If that is not humiliating enough for India, the Chinese and Pakistanis have completed survey of a broad-gauge railroad connecting Sinkiang with the Pakistan plains and on to Gwader, Balochistan. This project is on hold because of Pakistan’s internal security issues, but that is a different matter. Are the Pakistanis and Chinese superhuman while Indians are merely human?  Perhaps, but no medical evidence has been presented to this effect.
Meanwhile, if this citizen can ask the Army an impertinent question: what are your engineering regiments doing? Pakistan has several army engineer groups (each of several battalions and companies) working with that country’s Frontier Works Organization. In 1972-73, within the span of exactly a year – which means just 180 days for construction, 210 Engineer Regiment completed the road over the Khardung La. This road had been started in 1961 and then abandoned as too difficult. That shows what army engineers are capable of. In the 1965 War, an engineer regiment expanded the mule track to the Haji Pir Pass into a 1-ton road at the rate of a mile or day. True the Pir Panjal Range is more benign than Ladakh. But it is no picnic, and in 1965 the Army did not have the sort of heavy engineering equipment which today can be easily imported. It also could not import consultants from anywhere in the world – as it can today. It did not have All-Terrain Vehicles, GPS support, extreme weather-gear, and helicopters that our road builders have or can have today.  
Given that for the last ten years there has been almost a state of emergency in the north because of Chinese incursions, how is it excusable these critical roads have not been constructed? There is no purpose to pointing fingers when all it is is sheer negligence on everyone’s part.
If indeed it is so hard for India to construct its strategic and tactical roads, here is a suggestion. Contract with Chinese companies on a turnkey basis to build the roads. This may be the only way to get the roads built before the Chinese advance their line of control another 20-km into India.


  1. I don't agree with Ravi's views.

    Firstly - the Chinese railway track is costing some ungodly amount of money - the investment they are talking about is like 1 Bn USD per Km. It is a ludricrously high number. I am skeptical of this investment ever being made, the time taken to pay it off will be in excess of 100 years.

    Secondly, the Pakistanis and Chinese are talking about expanding the KKH but actually doing it is going to be a very different affair. Again the cost per Km is quite high and it is unclear who is going to pay for this. Back in 2002, the Americans made an interesting offer to the Pakistanis, they said that in exchange for access to the Deosai plateau (and putting what I presume would be an airbase there), the Americans would double the width of the KKH. Now there is loose talk of tripling and making it six times wider. With respect to Ravi, I think this is bullshit. If the Pakistanis have that kind of money they might want to spend it on reconstructing Ghyari and this time around putting some of those anti-avalanche measures the Italians and the Swiss advised them on. Those cost about 1000000 times less than increasing the width of the KKH by a factor of six!! In regions around Gilgit and elsewere along the KKH there is basically no place for the road to be "widenend" to, I imagine that the space needed to widen the road will come from the collective backsides of the Pakistan Army and the PLA!

    Thirdly, the road over Khardung La is a nightmare to use even today. It takes very serious effort to keep it open. I am sure a route like it can be opened if one puts the pedal to the metal, but keeping it open is another level of effort that is difficult to sustain.

    Construction in certain terrain is difficult regardless of who does it.

  2. I have spent hours tracing the Chinese highway G219. I intend to spend more time looking at details but I am afraid I have been unable to find anything like the asphalted highways referred to in the Orbat post above. The Karakoram highway is still closed having been made through the crumbly Himalayas. I am not saying the Chinese have done nothing but I dislike it when one side is exaggerated and used as an example to beat down another. That is rhetoric, not necessarily fact.In this case the need to beat down and bash the lack of development on the Indian side has been highlighted by a possible exaggeration of what the Chinese have done.

    i will retract this only if I can see evidence that I am wrong.

  3. FWIW, a few years ago, there was a major avalanche that wiped out a town in PoGB. The Pakistanis invited all manner of international experts to tell them what best to do to cope with the disaster. The experts from Italy, Switzerland and UK led the analytical team and recommended that the Pakistanis make investments into local weather prediction and snow accumulation monitoring. A WB loan was arranged to carry out a detailed study of how the Pakistanis could implement this - and nothing happened. Basically the Pakistanis and their "international" friends ate all the money and nothing came of it.

    Then in March last year Ghyari happened. Despite having a billion dollar military asset sitting at such a dangerous place at the mouth of a glacier, the Pak Army had no accumulation monitoring patrols on the glacier, no LIDAR to find out what the snow pack was doing sub-surface and they had no local weather prediction. So many died in the base - because the Pak Army's avalanche prediction models were too poor to issue even a simple early warning.

    If they want to talk of making a six lane KKH, that is great - but we all know where the money is going to go.

  4. All valid objections and comments that require serious answers. This board of Rohit's is a collabprative effort and we are all here to learn from each other.

    Pakistan will not pay for KKH expansion, China will. The Chinese are very keen to have an alternate rail, major road, and oil/gas pipeline from Gwader to Sinkiang both because (a) they want an alternate to Malacca which is a potential chokepoint and (b) because they want to develop western China. Right now goods have to be unloaded in the eastern seaboard ports and then shipped all the way west.

    I have actually seen fotos of metalled roads in Aksai Chin, I will try and go back over the net - please give me time as I have to work for a living and have several other projects.

    but please to remember once you build the road asphalting it is not at all difficult. You need temperatures above 50F, and lots of equipment. China has no problem bringing the heaviest equipment it needs to Tibet.

    Stone and gravel roads are fine for military use, you dont have to asphalt them except if not asphalted they do require heavy maintenance and wear out vehicles. From travel guides I have read it is possible to maintain speeds (4 x 4 SUV types) of 60 to 100kmph on Tibet roads. China will inevitably asphalt all major highways because they have so much civilian traffic going into Tibet now.

    The railroad is not going to cost $1-billion/km! Whoever put out that report has inadvertently added a few zeroes. Again, FYI I will try and get some details. Of course, hopefully the railroad will never be built because of the internal security situation.

    You all are right, KKH is subject to landslips as our highways in the mountains. But they are cleared - just as even ours are.

    Noone seems to be clear on what the Chinese are doing in Gilgit, but clearly they have a major presence and are planning to develop mineral resources. Please to note GOI, aside from a few mumbles, has nothing to say about the presence of several thousand Chinese troops in Gilgit. China, of course, denies they are troops, and says they are civilians engaged in construction - a lot of these fellows have to be there in connection with the KKH expansion project.

    I fully agree that road building in the Pratapur sector is difficult. But either we are serious about national security, or we are not. The US has beautiful 4-lane expressways through the Rockies, which are also very difficult terrain. These experience heavy snowfall in winters but the roads are kept clear. AND the US has to heed serious environmental constraints. I have seen one section of the interstate that goes to Denver that cost some gosh-awful sum of money along 10-miles because of the need to protect the environment.

    There is a real danger that at the rate we are going, Chinese will push us out of DBO and extend their road network from Aksai Chin to Northern Territories. This is not my idea BTW, I've been reading of the concern in some Indian blogs.

    Will do more research and report.

  5. Okay, folks, I've posted some basic details of KKH expansion: its complete in China, but only 17% complete in Pakistan despite completion date of 2012.

    Railway adjacent to G-219 by 2017 - this was planned long ago. G219 being upgraded.

    I found a URL with many pictures of G219; but when I reproduced it I got fotos of Australia. Went through IE history, no sign of the 30-40 odd pix I viewed. Nice going on my part. I am trying to find the thing again. Some of road is asphalted and some not. Some of the terrain is no better than Shyok River routes. Anyway, there is an upgrade underway which means the whole thing will be asphalted. This article mentions "repaving"

    description of G219 entire route:

  6. Some details on KKH expansion with pix. The lake that has been created by earthquake wiped out 22-km of KKH, looks like a temporary bye-pass is being built and over the longer term a tinnel

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  8. Hello Ravi,

    Regarding the cost of construction of railways. There are two basic portions of the cost - the first speaks to initial construction of the line itself and the second portion is about maintenance costs.

    The initial cost depends on the terrain. In the Tibet rail project, for the Golmud to Lhasa portion, the big issue was permafront. It took something like 20 years to engineer the correct solutions for this and re-evaluate the exact route. This cost money and time and that should be part of the true cost of the railway - but for the sake of this discussion let us set that to zero. After this was done, the cost for laying down the track for the Golmud-Lhasa section took about 3.8 Billion USD. Add to that cost of the specialised train cars and engines made by Bombardier and GE, and you get a number that is closer to the 10 Million/Km cost you report.

    If you take into account the cost of operating the railway - then the only metric available is the projected cost per tonne per km. The Chinese railway folks are projecting a 3 fold reduction in this cost and they are anticipating an increase in amount of material moved per year. This increase will not happen instaneously. It be several decades over which this increase will take place - and for that time, the difference in cost between the current price per tonne per km and the projected price per tonne allows us to capture costs that will be sunk by the GoPRC. So we are looking at an average of about 10 million tonnes/year being moved at an average cost of 0.25 RMB per tonne-km for 5 decades. This is not too far out of the ordinary as railway projects go. Beyond that point the volume of goods will be high enough for the railway will run in the black - until then it will be strictly speaking running in the red. This adds up to about 100 billion USD over 50 years. So for a 1000 km line, with an initial construction cost of around 10 million/km, the cost over 50 years is ~ 100 million USD/km.

    Over the next five decades, the PLA insists on building a number of ancilillary routes branching out of Lhasa into other parts of Tibet - the cost described above will go up even more. The proposed routes like the ones described here ( will have now economic returns on the investment. The cost associated with the mere construction of these will be in the 10 Million USD/Km range. It is fair to assume the cost sunk here is going to be higher as the economic return here is lower - I choose to capture this sunk cost as 300 Million USD/Km for fifty years. There are other ways of doing this but I want to put the overall numbers together.

    The cost associated with Chinese railway projects in this region has to be added together. So if we add the costs associated with the Lhasa Golmud section to the costs associated with all the other sections - it works out to several 100 Million USD/km over fifty years.

    When China finances these project it will have to hide these long terms costs away from initial investors. That is why the "construction cost" only is projected in press releases and all this good stuff is kept out of sight.

  9. The construction cost along the KKH are heavily influenced by the real cost of each tunnel.

    A case in point is the Lowari Pass tunnel, in Pakistan. You can see videos of this tunnel on youtube - it was Musharraf's pet project. It was his way of ensuring that he would always have friends in Chitral. To be honest with you - it scares me to even watch the movies. I challenge Musharraf to get in one of the Maruti Gypsy's and drive down the length to the tunnel himself and then tell me he wasn't half as scared as I was when I watched video.

  10. Regarding the roads in the rockies, having driven in those parts, I do know a little bit about those roads. It is quite a challenge to keep them operating in the winter.

    Disruptions are frequent despite the extraordinary experience that the US has in road construction in cold climates.

    I think it is reasonable to assume that a permanent threat exists to DBO in particular and to SSN in general.

    There is no harm in proceeding from this premise alone, I see little to be gained by over-projecting Chinese infrastructure efforts in the region.

    We know that the DBO-Sasoma road link is weak and that even with some of the best technology that would be extremely hard to fix. Getting worked about what the Chinese and Pakistanis might do several hundred km away from DBO does not seem very productive to me.

  11. Hello Ravi,

    One more thing that imo belongs in the cost per km of the railway.

    For a substaintial amount of time, most of the traffic on the railway will be that of the chinese government itself. For example, the Railway corporation will use the line to transport construction material for expansion, or the PLA will use it to move supplies. This will be internal spending that may look like "income" but in reality it will add to the cost and to keeping the railway project in the red.

    So if one factors that in, I suspect the time taken to run in the black -i.e. profitability based on non-governmental sources of income alone - then it will be in the 100 year range.

    To compare the Indian Railways as a whole began running in the black a decade or so after 1990 - i.e. after Sri. MMS' liberalisation took hold economically. Until then, between broad gauge expanion, electrification and every MP wanting a train station in his/her constituency - the IR sat firmly in the red.

    These kinds of investments were easy to make in the days of empires - no one asked any questions and you simply paid off the bankers with a few knighthoods or if they made too much of a fuss- you stuck them in the tower of london... it is not like that now.

    If I was a Pakistani/Chinese planner seeking to build this railway across the Karakorum, I would seek to float a set of special financial instruments (shares, bonds, etc...) with returns and risks that are tied to various indexes. The indexes in turn will be linked to various achievements critical to reaching profitability on a shorter timescale than projected. Essentially the index will spit out the true extent of the malperformance of the enterprise. That would be an actionable level of transparency.

    But we all know they will never do that. Instead they will approach some ONG barons and some drug lords and ask them to invest money into this and give them a promise of 20% IRR. After that they will use government funds to keep providing the "investors" returns while milking the consolidated fund of their countries for actual construction and operating costs. The people of China and Pakistan will end up paying for this railway in terms of lost developmental opportunities and funds that mysteriously dry up without warning as they are diverted to "service" the loans taken from oligarchs. This will lengthen the time taken for the railway to run in the black by several decades.