Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why Ladakh needs the Centre's urgent attention

Video reports of our 1250 km, bone-rattling journey in Ladakh.

http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/ground-report-from-ladakh-s-neglected-border-areas-576629




All the above reports were based on this journey chronicled below.

Day I, 28 July: We leave Leh, Ladakh's capital exactly at 7. In fact when you travel in the mountains, its always best to start as early as possible, even may be an hour before we actually left. Our first destination: Phobrang village (see map). As we follow the District Collector Simrandeep Singh's vehicle, we pass through the usual tourist sites--Sindhu Darshan, Shey--before climbing on to the Chang La, one of the highest passes in Ladakh at 17688 feet. A throng of tourists are busy clicking pictures. After all, this is the peak tourist season in the area. A quick glass of warm water and we are on our way to Darbuk.

Ten km down the road, a group of villagers




The original map by Aarti and Harsh


Our journey, marked by maroon squares



Dist Collector Simrandeep Singh reading a memorandum
from Shyok, which is slightly off the main road, stop the Collector's car. The young collector, decides to hold an impromptu roadside meeting. The villagers have come prepared with a flat, low table, carpets to sit on, tea and snacks for the collector's party. After all, not every day does the collector come visiting. After the traditional welcome, the whole party from Leh squats on the grass as villagers pour out their woes. They have a whole list of demands for their tiny village; an irrigation facility left incomplete, a road in a state of disrepair. Very basic demands but important nevertheless. Simrandeep gives them a patient hearing, asks his assistant for details of projects earmarked for Shyok and assures action on doable points. Quite apart from the instant decision making, it is refreshing to see absence of an intrusive security around the collector. The villagers are speaking to him one to one and without any fear. Its educative to see grassroots administrator in action!
At Pangang Tso


At Chushul
Twenty minutes later, we are off to Phobrang, first of the border villages along the Line of Actual Control with China. There are 22 to 26 such villages, depending on whether you consider an hamlet with barely four houses as a village or a settlement. Phobrang is co-located with an ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) camp. The ITBP, as the name suggests is the first line of border defence forces along the LAC. Established in 1963, immediately after the India-China war in 1962, the men of this force remain deployed at high altitude throughout their careers and are veterans of the China border.


An agitated villager at Merak
Local ITBP commandants sit with the District Collector for a meeting with the villagers to hear their problems first hand. Phabrong villagers have a big grouse: They are prevented from taking their cattle to the traditional pasture land close to the LAC; the ITBP has a standard reply: Agreements between India and China mandates certain restrictions and therefore they are bound by Govt of India guidelines! A refrain we were to hear throughout the 72-hour, 1250 km journey in Eastern Ladakh earlier this week.


Simrandeep Singh, the young collector
The District Collector, perhaps first such officer to visit these remote, inaccessible areas in half a decade, notes everything down in his diary, tells his assistant to take note of special needs and gives decision in some cases on the spot. He has already reversed an old ratio of spending 70 per cent of the BADP (Border Area Development Programme) funds in areas other than border villages. In this year's budget the border villages will actually get 70 per cent of the allotted money.

A quick, local lunch prepared by the villagers and we are off to Lukung, at the very edge of the beautiful Pangong Tso (lake). A string of villages along the lake starting with Spangmik, Mena, Merak takes us to Chushul late evening. An eventful day ends with a long discussion with an Army Unit which was in Assam and the one I had visited in 2007! A sumptuous dinner later, we crash around midnight tired to the bones. Tomorrow is another day.


Paying my respects to the gallant 13 Kumaonis
In contemplative mood at Rezangla
Day II, 29 July: Departure 6.45 am. Breakfast at the ITBP camp in Chushul. Astonished to learn that this post has been located here since 1963. Even now, Chushul is back of the beyond. Even now, this fairly largish village has ONE telephone that is shared between villagers, ITBP and the Army. I am left wondering what would it have been five decades ago! Nothing has changed since my last visit here in 2007 when I had stayed at this location (at 14450 feet) for two days. The road in and out of the village and Army battalion HQ is as dusty as before; electricity is non-existent; there is one weekly bus service to Leh, the district capital! We are headed to Tasga La village (see map) as a first stop. But there is duty to be done: pay our respects at the Rezang La War Memorial built in memory of the 113 brave hearts of the 13 Kumaon Battalion who fought to the last man, last bullet and died in the line of duty in the summer of 1962, facing Chinese human waves. The memory of Maj Shaitan Singh, Param Vir Chakra and his 112 ferocious Ahirs lives on at this desolate spot. Tears automatically well up as I lay a wreath at this starkly simple monument, barely a dot in the vast Ladakh flat land.


Speaking to Rinchin
At Tsaga La village, as the Collector sits down with the villagers, I am pleasantly surprised to run into a young Rinchin, prettily dressed in traditional Ladakhi dress. A post-graduate in Political Science from IGNOU, Rinchin has come back home to spread awareness and with a zeal to educate the village children. "Life has no meaning without education," she explains. "Other facilities will come with time, but the urgent need is to impart education," young Rinchin tells me. 
A Tibetan nomad

The Collector meanwhile has heard the familiar demands: a pucca road, at least one telephone connection in the village and electricity. He points out that solar energy is the focus of the government and all households should get their rightful due in some years. But agrees that roads must be built on priority.We move on. Now its going to be a minimum of five hours of drive to Demchock, at the southern most extreme point in Eastern Ladakh where frequent stand offs between Indian Army and PLA troops is common. On the way, we run into nomads who stop us and complain about shriking pastures and the tendency among Indian security forces to restrain Indian Ribos (nomads) from venturing close to the LAC. The District Collector turns to the accompanying ITBP officials and seeks to understand the ITBP argument in keeping the nomads away. Simrandeep is not satisfied. But we carry on nevertheless. As we hit the final stretch to Demchock, the ground is flat and naturally gravelled but there is no road. Army battle tanks can roll on this terrain very easily, I think to myself but even a Mahindra SUV has its limits. Two hours of bumpy ride along the Indus brings us to Demchock, the absolutely last village on the Indian side. 


The Chinese post across Demchok
It starts raining. The lone policeman, accompanying Simrandeep tells me "rain means good omen." We arrive at Demchock. Only the Demchock nallah, now overflowing because of rains, divides India and China. At a distance I can see multi-storey buildings, a watch tower and a giant ball (perhaps a radar, a snooping device) on the Chinese side. The villagers are agitated. They have been prevented, they claim from going to what is rightfully Indian territory. Local army and ITBP officials remain silent. They want to brief the Collector separately on the complex issues involved in the delicate boundary situation.


A double story colony for Chinese Ribos across Demchok
The Collector decides to go a little further and inspect the spot for himself but a sudden surge of water in the nallah prevents us from going to what is called the T-point. At the zero point on the LAC, my so-far dead phone springs to life! Text messages start coming in fast and furious! I am amazed but a closer look reveals that the signal on my phone is from a Chinese Cell phone provider! The Chinese have managed to get their mobile network right up to the LAC. On the Indian side, even a landline is rare! That tells me all that is there to know about the state of infrastructure on the Indian side!

Its getting late. We have another five hours to travel back to Hanle. If we had travelled in a straight line, the journey time would have been cut down by half but the road is incomplete, so the circuitous route it is.

A long bumpy ride back, brings us to Hanle, base to the Indian Astronomical Observatory, reputed to be the world's highest observatory. The guest house is decent but basic. Tired to the bone after a 15 hour road journey, we have a hot meal and hit the bed. But not before realising that tomorrow is going to be longer!


Villagers at Chumur
Day II, 30 July: Two days of bone crushing travel has sapped the energy but not the spirit, so we set out again around 7.30 am, this time the destination is Chumar in the news more regularly than other hot spots in Ladakh along the LAC. Once again, unusual rains have cut off the shorter route. So it is not before noon that we reach the banks of the other well known lake in Ladakh--Tso Moriri. But our destination is still at least an hour away. Chumur, on the tri-junction of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and China has been the bone of contention between India and China for the last couple of years. In fact, the April 2013, 21-day incursion by PLA troops about 300 km up north in the Depsang plains of Dault Beg Oldie is said to have been done to relieve Indian pressure on weaker Chinese positions in Chumur! Here the local councilor (equivalent of a minister) of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council is present at the public meeting. And he is one angry public representative! He let's loose a litany of grievances against the government, and especially against the forces--ITBP and Army for preventing his constituents from using the traditional pastures for their cattle. " We have been going to Chepzi (an area that is been with the Chinese at least since the 1970s) but now we are stopped well within our own territory. Our pastures have shrunk. We are facing a livelihood crises," he alleges. The Collector listens to him with patience and promises to check the exact position with Army and ITBP but the assembled people will have none of it. They repeatedly request the Collector to go with them to the area, not very far from where the meeting is taking place. He agrees.
At Chumur

So our convoy heads to what looks like a disputed spot. The local ITBP commander gets the jitters. He has been told not to allow anyone beyond a certain point. But preventing local residents is one thing and stopping the District Collector is quite another. So he leads the convoy. After a 15 minute drive on a kutcha road, we are at a point called Mane up to which the PLA troops apparently come almost every second day. "They had come yesterday (29th July)," one of the local residents tells me as I do my piece-to-camera at the troubled spot. 

My colleague, cameraperson Manu Nair points out that we must be the first Indian media persons to have reached the place which is in news for almost every month for the past two years for stand offs between Indian and Chinese troops!

After a 15-minute inspection of the spot and the terrain around the area, we head back to the ITBP camp. A quick lunch accompanied by an explanation of the situation on the detailed map later, we are on the road again. 

A seven hour return journey lies ahead. Its not until 11 pm, that we are back at Leh, only to wake up again at 5 to catch the 7 am flight back to Delhi the next day!

A gruelling, 1250 km extremely educative trip is over. The back is beginning to hurt, the knees are creaking but the satisfaction of having seen the situation on ground and understood the pathetic condition of border villages in Ladakh far outweighs the pain!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

You live in this secure nation state because of the selfless soldier, Mr Bhatia

Wisdom and education are not necessarily two sides of the same coin.

If you ever wanted an example of how high education--Western education, that highly valued, albeit inflated, commodity in India--does not bring wisdom, one just have to read architect Gautam Bhatia's downright disparaging and insensitive article on the National War Memorial in a leading newspaper early this week, titled: Don’t battle over new war memorial ; settle for old.’

The magnificent War Memorial at Drass
The author is supposedly educated in the United States and has also executed several projects in that country. He should know how the Americans honour the men and women in uniform, both dead and serving. 'Thank You for serving," is a common refrain in public spaces there when common citizens come across soldiers. First Class Passengers and service personnel board planes on priority in the US. Across Europe, nations as diverse as Belgium, the UK and even Turkey are commemorating and remembering the sacrifices made by millions of soldiers who died in World War I. 

More than 70,000 Indian soldiers died fighting that war in distant lands, a memory better preserved in Europe than in our own country. Sample what French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch said about Indian soldiers in 1927 while inaugurating a War Memorial in Paris:"Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern land of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all India that we shall watch over their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We shall cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way; they made the first steps towards the final victory."

But people like Gautam Bhatia will never bother to learn or understand what soldiering means. Despite his Western education, he is no better than the uncouth and uneducated minister from Bihar who had remarked last year, "Soldiers join the army to die." At least we can give benefit of the doubt to the minister but when elites like Mr Bhatia write, 'Aren't soldiers who join the army, aware of the dangers of their tasks? Isn't death the unfortunate but inevitable by  product of war?' all that we can do is to pity his intellect. Or is MrBhatia driven to criticise the war memorial because he is not likely to be part of the project. Because twice in his article he laments the fact that an international consortium/a foreign architect  might undertake this project. Is this the main issue?

Clearly, Mr Bhatia is literate but not educated because if he was, he would have known what the world wise political-military strategist, Chanakya had said centuries ago.


The Soldier

It essential to understand why the soldier (in the broader sense) is pivotal for the well being of a nation-state, Chanakya had told the king of Magadh: "The Mauryan soldier does not himself the Royal treasuries enrich nor does he the Royal granaries fill... The soldier only and merely ensures that... He is thus the very basis and silent, barely visible cornerstone of our fame, culture, physical well-being and prosperity; in short, of the entire nation building activity."

The Indian nation state has, however, forgotten Chanakya’s advice. The Indian soldier today stands at the crossroads, confused about his status in the society and unsure about his own role in a nation led by “faux peaceniks” who will compromise national security for short-term gains like a Nobel Peace Prize. The havoc wrought by an indifferent polity and insensitive bureaucracy to India’s armed forces and changing societal norms, has hit the ordinary soldier hard.

The society no longer respects the soldier and his work in protecting the nation. They may pay lip service in times of crisis but that’s it. Bihar politician Bhim Singh’s utterly tasteless remark that “people join armed forces to die,” in the wake of the killing of five Indian soldiers on the line of control, is symptomatic of the bitter reality. Although forced to withdraw his remark, the Bihar politician symbolizes how a large section of Indian society view soldiering. Mr Bhatia, sadly, is also of the same ilk.

An Ultimate Weapon

A local politician, a thanedar, seems to command more clout in society today. This has often led to a loss of self-esteem among ordinary soldiers. A recent movie called Paan Singh Tomar depicted, in some measure, the humiliation that a soldier faces in the civilian environment, both while serving and after retirement from the armed forces.

And yet, from disaster relief in floods, tsunamis and earthquakes, to rescuing an infant prince from a deep tube well, and from quelling rioters in communal strife to being the last resort in internal counter-insurgency operations, the Indian Army is omnipresent. It is, what I have said time and again, India’s Brahmaastra — an ultimate weapon.

The versatility, adaptability, selfless attitude and resourcefulness of the Indian Army have allowed it to be what it is today: nation builders. Viewed in the context of India’s immediate and extended neighborhood, the Indian Army’s stellar role stands out in stark contrast to its counterparts in other countries.

Remember, Indian and Pakistani armies originated from the same source: the British Army. And yet, six decades since they parted ways, there couldn’t be a bigger dissimilarity in the way the two have evolved. As they say, India has an army while the Pakistani Army has a nation.

Despite India’s increasing dependence on the army to pull its chestnuts out of the fire time and again, the Indian Army has scrupulously remained apolitical. It has put down fissiparous and secessionist forces within India with great cost to itself over these 66 years. It has protected India from within and without.

The Indian army also has a unique distinction of helping create a nation (Bangladesh) in the neighborhood and then quietly walking away to let the people take charge. By contrast, the Pakistani Army has never really allowed democracy to flourish in its country. Instead, it has created a military-industrial complex that has spread its tentacles in every aspect of governance. Even today, the Pakistani Army does not let go of any opportunity to undercut democracy; it nurtures and treats jihadi elements as its strategic asset against India and the United States. 

Even in other smaller nations around India — Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh, for instance — the armed forces have had to intervene and run the affairs of those countries at some point.

So who or what makes the Indian Army so distinct? Simply put, its leaders and its men and their ethos of “service before self.” From the early days of independence, Indian military leaders — stalwarts like KM Cariappa, Rajendra Singhji, KS Thimayya and later Sam Maneckshaw — led the forces from the front and provided a strong moral center that has remained more or less in tact; some very regrettable instances of moral and monetary corruption notwithstanding.

Since independence, one institution that has remained absolutely free of communalism and divisive tendencies is the Indian Army. When caste and religious differences have beset the country’s politics and society at large, the army has stood firm against these divisive forces. It has thus stood the test of time and has consistently upheld and protected the nation’s constitution with unflinching loyalty, making a major contribution in nation building in the first six decades of India’s existence as an independent, sovereign nation.

Civilian Control

However, as India marks its 68th Independence Day, I am not so sure if this great institution can withstand the buffeting it receives both from within the Ministry of Defense and beyond.

Why has this happened? Mainly because in India, civilian control of the military has become synonymous with bureaucratic control. The political executive, barring a handful, neither has the knowledge nor any interest in military matters, and therefore, it depends completely on inputs from the bureaucrats who continue to mould the political leadership’s thought process according to their own perceptions on governance and administration.

The effort to cut defense services down to size had begun immediately after independence. Before 1947, the status of the commander in chief (C-in-C) in India was second only to that of the Viceroy. As a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council, he was also the de facto defense minister. He was served by his uniformed principal staff officers (PSOs) and the defense secretary who, incidentally, was below the PSOs in the order of precedence. The role of the Defense Department was not to examine proposals, or to sit in judgment over the Army Headquarters, but was restricted to issuing orders in the name of the Government of India.

Sixty-seven years after Independence, it is no secret that the political-military interface is all but absent in India’s institutional set up. The armed forces are completely under the day-to-day as well as policy control of the MoD. The desirable politico-military interface is now reduced to weekly, sometimes fortnightly meetings chaired by the defense minister. According to several former chiefs I have spoken to, these meetings are informal, without any agendas or note taking and have no official status — although in theory, the defense minister is deemed to have given policy directions in these meetings.

Over these six decades, the bureaucracy continued to acquire disproportionate powers vis-à-vis the service chiefs and now it’s a given that the defense secretary and not the service chiefs, is the single-point adviser to the cabinet on military matters. The defense and cabinet secretaries have a consistent interface with the political leadership, as the service chiefs attend the meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) only if invited.

So the defence secretary, a generalist IAS officer and not the military brass, is responsible for national defense as well as conduct of war. Under the current rules, the service chiefs have neither been accorded a status, nor granted any powers in the government edifice. In the process, it is the service chiefs who were marginalized from the decision-making bodies.

Resentment

While very few have been able to explain the real reason behind the antipathy against the military displayed by the civil bureaucracy and the political executive, my experience suggests that non-military personnel resent the armed forces because of their evidently orderly and efficient ethos, the tightly bound camaraderie, and their distinct standing in the society. And this is not unique to India. Renowned sociologist Morris Janowitz had famously said: “The intimate social solidarity of the military profession is both envied and resented by civilians.”

So is there a way out of this logjam? Can the status quo ever be broken?

Historically, it is to the credit of the Indian Armed Forces that they have fulfilled their assigned role as an organ of the state, that they have functioned effectively in every role, despite a general lack of a supportive government environment by way of adequate finances, resources, equipment, personnel policies, or higher political direction.

Yet though the average Indian soldier remains as hardy as before, he is certainly confused with the pace of change occurring all around him. It is here that the leaders — the officers — will have to adapt themselves to the new reality. The age-old system of regimental traditions and values is robust and serves to develop camaraderie and loyalty between the led and the leader even now. But we must reset the ties between the average citizen and the Indian soldier, because without the soldier and without the army (and I mean all the three armed forces here), the Indian State cannot hope to survive.

As Chanakya had said to the king: “While the Magadha citizenry endeavours to make the State prosper and flourish, the Mauryan soldier guarantees that the State continues to exist!”

Can we all, people in uniform, civil services, politics, media and society at large, imbue this spirit and make the soldier — our bulwark against any potential threat — stronger and tell people like Mr Bhatia to go take a hike?


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Why INS Kolkata's coming induction is welcome

video
Exactly two months after he embarked on India's biggest warship, the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will once again visit a naval establishment to commission an indigenously built stealth destroyer. On 16 August, INS Kolkata, built at the Defence Public Sector Unit, Mumbai-based Mazgaon Docks Ltd will be joining the Indian Navy, further enhancing its capability.

With an operating range of 15,000 km, INS Kolkata, first of the three such ships that will join the Indian Navy in the next few years, is equipped to play a varied role. It has an in-built anti-submarine capability, can take on anti-ship missile and a fighter aircraft. It will the first Indian ship to be armed with the land attack, anti-ship Brahmos missile, again manufactured in India with Russian collaboration.

These capabilities give INS Kolkata an ability to operate without supporting fleet of ships. With an integral hanger and a landing deck for a helicopter, the guided missile destroyer will add teeth to the 140-ship strong Indian Navy, currently undergoing a massive expansion.

Although its delivery has been delayed way beyond the deadline, Kolkata's induction will further boost the confidence of Indian shipbuilders. With 44 ships of varying shapes, capability and size under construction in Indian shipyards, the Navy is betting big on local expertise to build and enhance its fleet in the coming decade.

The Parliament's Standing Committee on Defence was informed last year that while Indian shipyards have made remarkable progress in building hulls and associated equipment but still lag behind in building and manufacturing weapons and sensors.
 
Traditionally the Indian Navy has sourced most of its ships from the former Soviet Union but over the past decade, defence planners have leaned hard on Indian shipbuilding yards to deliver a variety of warship for the Indian Navy.


The big picture is indeed positive. Its long-term Maritime Capabilities Perspective Plan had identified a mix of two major roles for the force: One, the traditional blue water operational capability and two, a plan to effectively counter threats closer to the coast. It is steadily working towards achieving that objective.
In April 2012 a new naval base, INS Dweeprakshak (Island Protector) was put into operation at Kavaratti in Lakshawadeep, the tiny island chain, southwest of mainland India. Although the Indian Navy has had a small presence on the strategically important islands for the past decade, its decision to open a permanent base emanated from recent incidents of piracy very close to these islands. 
The Navy is also in the process of setting up Operational Turn Around (OTR) bases, Forward Operating Bases and Naval Air Enclaves along the coast, which would enhance the reach and sustainability of its surveillance effort on both the coasts. From 2011 onward, the Navy focused on creating operational and administrative infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar and the Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands, considered the country’s strategic outposts.
Another capability the Indian Navy quietly added in Novmber 2013 was a dedicated ccommunication satellite. The satellite is described as a force multiplier by senior naval officers. It covers the Navy’s entire area of interest in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The satellite handles all data transfers for maritime domain awareness and the entire range of communications and networking needs of the Indian Navy. “It brings an entirely new dimension in network operations and in maritime operations,” Former Navy Chief Adm DK Joshi had told me last November, speaking about the satellite for the first time in the public domain.
Given the extensive plans presented to Parliament, it is evident now that the Indian Navy is in the midst of its most ambitious expansion plan in the past three decades. Senior officers point out that the Indian Navy’s perspective-planning in terms of force-levels is now driven by a conceptual shift from numbers of platforms – that is, from the old bean-counting philosophy – to one that concentrates on capabilities.
All the more reason why the Indian Navy--as indeed the other two armed forces--must eschew nepotism and favoritism in promoting officers beyond their capabilities.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Blatant favouritism at the top angers Navy

There is anger and dismay among the top brass of the Indian Navy. In what is seen as blatant favouratism, the Naval HQ has 'bent rules' to facilitate promotion of a key aide to the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral RK Dhowan, available documents show.

A circular issued a couple of months after Adm. Dhowan took over as Navy Chief allows his long-serving Staff Officer Commander Satpal Singh to be promoted to the rank of Captain without having done the mandatory time at sea.

In other words, the officer would be able to attain the rank of a Captain without having had the experience of commanding a front line ship.

The one-time exception, issued by the Naval HQ last month (see document), also gives officers who have not qualified for the key 'command examination' another chance to appear and qualify for the rank of captain. 

The circular granting the one-time exception was issued on July 18 by the assistant chief of personnel, Rear Admiral S.N. Ghormade, . The circular said the additional attempt for appearing for the command exam was issued after receiving 'a number of requests in the recent past'. 

Senior officers in Eastern and Western Commands-- the Indian Navy's two operational commands--are appalled and alarmed at the open manipulation and nepotism indulged in by the Naval HQ, allegedly at the behest of the Navy Chief himself. 

Commander Satpal Singh has been a Staff Officer to Adm Dhowan for at least five years, an extraordinary feat in itself, Naval officers point out.

"This move will demoralise those who slog their way up in a highly competitive field up by spending long tenures at sea gaining operational experience,"  an admiral remarked.

However, the Navy has denied the charges. "As in every progressive organisation, the Indian Navy reviews and revises its personnel policies every four or five years to maintain a high level of motivation of its personnel. Such exceptions have been made in the past too," a Navy Spokesperson said. Adm Dhowan's supporters say the 'canard' about the 'one time' exception being granted only to suit his key aide, is spread by those who don't make the grade and are therefore disgruntled.

Not satisfied with the Naval HQ's explanation, some officers are now contemplating legal recourse to arrest what they see as extraordinary nepotism. 





Thursday, August 7, 2014

India playing catch up in Ladakh but much remains to be done in border villages

Are top ranking Chinese generals and party officials visiting cantonments bordering Ladakh and Sikkim more frequently because of India's renewed emphasise on building its defences in these areas?


The Hindu reported that  a top ranking General of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (PLA) has carried out a rare inspection visit to the disputed western section of the border with India, including stops to inspect troops at two sites that have been at the centre of recent differences over incursion incidents — near the Karakoram Pass and the contested Pangong Tso lake.  General Xu Qiliang, who is one of two Vice-Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC) headed by President Xi Jinping — the highest-ranking position in the Chinese Army — made the visit last month to inspect frontier troops in Xinjiang and Tibet, including in the Aksai Chin region claimed by India.
 

Other newspaper reports in China have indicated that a senior Communist Party of China official spent unusually long time in Western Tibet in areas bordering Ladakh and Sikkim. They reported that Deng Xiaogang, Deputy Party Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, responsible for the law and order, security and police, spent considerable time “to inspect the border security and the People’s Liberation Army bases”.
 
On June 20 for instance, an article in The Tibet Daily mentions: “Deng Xiaogang inspected Rutok, the border county”. Rudok is located near the Pangong Lake (tso) stretching between India and China; it is where Chinese ‘water’ incursions often occur. Addressing the border guards, Deng Xiaogang stressed: “Tibet is very special strategic location; it is an important barrier for the national security; development and stability in these border areas is an important part of the region’s overall situation.”


Why is China so nervous about these borders areas? 

One reason for the Chinese attention to areas bordering Ladakh and Sikkim could be the following developments on the Indian side.
 
After years of neglect and apathy, India is beefing up its defences in Ladakh and Sikkim. Consider this:
  • A new Air Force Station to base fighter jets is coming up at Nyoma/Muth, about 200 km from capital Leh but just 25 km from the Line of Actual Control, as the border between India and China is known
  • A full-fledged armoured brigade will now be based in Ladakh. Two more armoured regiments will join 68 armoured regiment which made history last year by crossing the 13,000 feet plus Zojila and is now based near Nyoma.
  • One more infantry brigade is now moving closer to DBO where a standoff took place last year. It will join the existing Infantry brigade at Tangtse.
  • A new cantonment is coming up on the outskirts of Leh to house new support units
  • In Sikkim, India's armoured presence is being steadily built up.
 
But much remains to be done in Ladakh as my recent tour of the villages along the border revealed. 

1. Poor Roads 

For instance, the crucial Lukung-Spangmik-Man-Merak-Chushul road, that goes all along the Pangong Tso needs to be black-topped urgently with either culverts or cemented troughs to take care of streams.
 
The Dungti-Koyul-Demchok stretch also needs a well-defined road. Right now, one travels only on natural gravel.

The Chushul-Rezeang La-Tasaga-Loma road could be opened for Indian tourists with adequate safeguards to let them do the Lukung-Chushul-Tsaga-Loma-Chumathang-Kairi-Karu-Leh circuit.

2. Communication facilities

BSNL towers are a must at Demchock, Pangong, Tsaga, Phobrang, and Chumur villages.

The Chinese mobile network is available at  at least two of these places. Even Chushul's already installed BSNL tower is not functional. 

Bus service between Chushul and Leh and Demchok-Leh needs to be at least twice a week, instead of once a week now.

3. Issues between Army-ITBP and local residents

There is friction between ITBP/Army and local residents at various places like Chumur, Demchok, Phobrang and Merak. The issues may seem trivial, but they have a potential to flare up.
 
A survey of the pastures in the area to determine their sufficiency should be undertaken.
 

Finally, there have to be more ITBP/Army posts across the Indus, closer to the LAC at least on the stretch between Dungti and Demchok. Right now Indian posts are at least four-five km in depth, delaying reaction time.

 

 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Along the LAC with China, a bone-crushing 1250 km journey: Of nomads and Chinese mobile network

Day I, 28 July: We leave Leh, Ladakh's capital exactly at 7. In fact when you travel in the mountains, its always best to start as early as possible, even may be an hour before we actually left. Our first destination: Phobrang village (see map). As we follow the District Collector Simrandeep Singh's vehicle, we pass through the usual tourist sites--Sindhu Darshan, Shey--before climbing on to the Chang La, one of the highest passes in Ladakh at 17688 feet. A throng of tourists are busy clicking pictures. After all, this is the peak tourist season in the area. A quick glass of warm water and we are on our way to Darbuk.

Ten km down the road, a group of villagers



Our journey, marked by maroon squares


Dist Collector Simrandeep Singh reading a memorandum

from Shyok, which is slightly off the main road, stop the Collector's car. The young collector, decides to hold an impromptu roadside meeting. The villagers have come prepared with a flat, low table, carpets to sit on, tea and snacks for the collector's party. After all, not every day does the collector come visiting. After the traditional welcome, the whole party from Leh squats on the grass as villagers pour out their woes. They have a whole list of demands for their tiny village; an irrigation facility left incomplete, a road in a state of disrepair. Very basic demands but important nevertheless. Simrandeep gives them a patient hearing, asks his assistant for details of projects earmarked for Shyok and assures action on doable points. Quite apart from the instant decision making, it is refreshing to see absence of an intrusive security around the collector. The villagers are speaking to him one to one and without any fear. Its educative to see grassroots administrator in action!
At Pangang Tso

At Chushul
Twenty minutes later, we are off to Phobrang, first of the border villages along the Line of Actual Control with China. There are 22 to 26 such villages, depending on whether you consider an hamlet with barely four houses as a village or a settlement. Phobrang is co-located with an ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) camp. The ITBP, as the name suggests is the first line of border defence forces along the LAC. Established in 1963, immediately after the India-China war in 1962, the men of this force remain deployed at high altitude throughout their careers and are veterans of the China border.

An agitated villager at Merak
Local ITBP commandants sit with the District Collector for a meeting with the villagers to hear their problems first hand. Phabrong villagers have a big grouse: They are prevented from taking their cattle to the traditional pasture land close to the LAC; the ITBP has a standard reply: Agreements between India and China mandates certain restrictions and therefore they are bound by Govt of India guidelines! A refrain we were to hear throughout the 72-hour, 1250 km journey in Eastern Ladakh earlier this week.

Simrandeep Singh, the young collector
The District Collector, perhaps first such officer to visit these remote, inaccessible areas in half a decade, notes everything down in his diary, tells his assistant to take note of special needs and gives decision in some cases on the spot. He has already reversed an old ratio of spending 70 per cent of the BADP (Border Area Development Programme) funds in areas other than border villages. In this year's budget the border villages will actually get 70 per cent of the allotted money.

A quick, local lunch prepared by the villagers and we are off to Lukung, at the very edge of the beautiful Pangong Tso (lake). A string of villages along the lake starting with Spangmik, Mena, Merak takes us to Chushul late evening. An eventful day ends with a long discussion with an Army Unit which was in Assam and the one I had visited in 2007! A sumptuous dinner later, we crash around midnight tired to the bones. Tomorrow is another day.

Paying my respects to the gallant 13 Kumaonis
In contemplative mood at Rezangla
Day II, 29 July: Departure 6.45 am. Breakfast at the ITBP camp in Chushul. Astonished to learn that this post has been located here since 1963. Even now, Chushul is back of the beyond. Even now, this fairly largish village has ONE telephone that is shared between villagers, ITBP and the Army. I am left wondering what would it have been five decades ago! Nothing has changed since my last visit here in 2007 when I had stayed at this location (at 14450 feet) for two days. The road in and out of the village and Army battalion HQ is as dusty as before; electricity is non-existent; there is one weekly bus service to Leh, the district capital! We are headed to Tasga La village (see map) as a first stop. But there is duty to be done: pay our respects at the Rezang La War Memorial built in memory of the 113 brave hearts of the 13 Kumaon Battalion who fought to the last man, last bullet and died in the line of duty in the summer of 1962, facing Chinese human waves. The memory of Maj Shaitan Singh, Param Vir Chakra and his 112 ferocious Ahirs lives on at this desolate spot. Tears automatically well up as I lay a wreath at this starkly simple monument, barely a dot in the vast Ladakh flat land.

Speaking to Rinchin
At Tsaga La village, as the Collector sits down with the villagers, I am pleasantly surprised to run into a young Rinchin, prettily dressed in traditional Ladakhi dress. A post-graduate in Political Science from IGNOU, Rinchin has come back home to spread awareness and with a zeal to educate the village children. "Life has no meaning without education," she explains. "Other facilities will come with time, but the urgent need is to impart education," young Rinchin tells me. 
A Tibetan nomad

The Collector meanwhile has heard the familiar demands: a pucca road, at least one telephone connection in the village and electricity. He points out that solar energy is the focus of the government and all households should get their rightful due in some years. But agrees that roads must be built on priority.We move on. Now its going to be a minimum of five hours of drive to Demchock, at the southern most extreme point in Eastern Ladakh where frequent stand offs between Indian Army and PLA troops is common. On the way, we run into nomads who stop us and complain about shriking pastures and the tendency among Indian security forces to restrain Indian Ribos (nomads) from venturing close to the LAC. The District Collector turns to the accompanying ITBP officials and seeks to understand the ITBP argument in keeping the nomads away. Simrandeep is not satisfied. But we carry on nevertheless. As we hit the final stretch to Demchock, the ground is flat and naturally gravelled but there is no road. Army battle tanks can roll on this terrain very easily, I think to myself but even a Mahindra SUV has its limits. Two hours of bumpy ride along the Indus brings us to Demchock, the absolutely last village on the Indian side. 


The Chinese post across Demchok
It starts raining. The lone policeman, accompanying Simrandeep tells me "rain means good omen." We arrive at Demchock. Only the Demchock nallah, now overflowing because of rains, divides India and China. At a distance I can see multi-storey buildings, a watch tower and a giant ball (perhaps a radar, a snooping device) on the Chinese side. The villagers are agitated. They have been prevented, they claim from going to what is rightfully Indian territory. Local army and ITBP officials remain silent. They want to brief the Collector separately on the complex issues involved in the delicate boundary situation.


A double story colony for Chinese Ribos across Demchok
The Collector decides to go a little further and inspect the spot for himself but a sudden surge of water in the nallah prevents us from going to what is called the T-point. At the zero point on the LAC, my so-far dead phone springs to life! Text messages start coming in fast and furious! I am amazed but a closer look reveals that the signal on my phone is from a Chinese Cell phone provider! The Chinese have managed to get their mobile network right up to the LAC. On the Indian side, even a landline is rare! That tells me all that is there to know about the state of infrastructure on the Indian side!

Its getting late. We have another five hours to travel back to Hanle. If we had travelled in a straight line, the journey time would have been cut down by half but the road is incomplete, so the circuitous route it is.

A long bumpy ride back, brings us to Hanle, base to the Indian Astronomical Observatory, reputed to be the world's highest observatory. The guest house is decent but basic. Tired to the bone after a 15 hour road journey, we have a hot meal and hit the bed. But not before realising that tomorrow is going to be longer!


Villagers at Chumar
Day II, 30 July: Two days of bone crushing travel has sapped the energy but not the spirit, so we set out again around 7.30 am, this time the destination is Chumar in the news more regularly than other hot spots in Ladakh along the LAC. Once again, unusual rains have cut off the shorter route. So it is not before noon that we reach the banks of the other well known lake in Ladakh--Tso Moriri. But our destination is still at least an hour away. Chumar, on the tri-junction of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and China has been the bone of contention between India and China for the last couple of years. In fact, the April 2013, 21-day incursion by PLA troops about 300 km up north in the Depsang plains of Dault Beg Oldie is said to have been done to relieve Indian pressure on weaker Chinese positions in Chumar! Here the local councilor (equivalent of a minister) of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council is present at the public meeting. And he is one angry public representative! He let's loose a litany of grievances against the government, and especially against the forces--ITBP and Army for preventing his constituents from using the traditional pastures for their cattle. " We have been going to Chepzi (an area that is been with the Chinese at least since the 1970s) but now we are stopped well within our own territory. Our pastures have shrunk. We are facing a livelihood crises," he alleges. The Collector listens to him with patience and promises to check the exact position with Army and ITBP but the assembled people will have none of it. They repeatedly request the Collector to go with them to the area, not very far from where the meeting is taking place. He agrees.
At Chumar

So our convoy heads to what looks like a disputed spot. The local ITBP commander gets the jitters. He has been told not to allow anyone beyond a certain point. But preventing local residents is one thing and stopping the District Collector is quite another. So he leads the convoy. After a 15 minute drive on a kutcha road, we are at a point called Mane up to which the PLA troops apparently come almost every second day. "They had come yesterday (29th July)," one of the local residents tells me as I do my piece-to-camera at the troubled spot. 

My colleague, cameraperson Manu Nair points out that we must be the first Indian media persons to have reached the place which is in news for almost every month for the past two years for stand offs between Indian and Chinese troops!

After a 15-minute inspection of the spot and the terrain around the area, we head back to the ITBP camp. A quick lunch accompanied by an explanation of the situation on the detailed map later, we are on the road again. 

A seven hour return journey lies ahead. Its not until 11 pm, that we are back at Leh, only to wake up again at 5 to catch the 7 am flight back to Delhi the next day!

A gruelling, 1250 km extremely educative trip is over. The back is beginning to hurt, the knees are creaking but the satisfaction of having seen the situation on ground and understood the pathetic condition of border villages in Ladakh far outweighs the pain!

Day IV, 31 July: A lot of work remains. Footage needs to be sorted out, script needs to be finalised, a slot is needed to found. But all that will come later. For the moment, recouping from the exhausting journey of eight days (four days in Kargil Drass and four in Eastern Ladakh) is the priority. And yes, the weekend, as promised, is reserved for the spouse! So here I am racing against time to finish this article on a Friday evening.

P.S. It has been brought to my notice that the map I am using to show our journey was created by two people--Arati and Harsh--whom I don't know. The map was shared with me by the district administration.