India is working on two key roads near the China border in eastern Ladakh — the site of a tense weeks-long border stand-off with its northern neighbour — to provide connectivity to an important forward area that the military calls Sub-Sector North (SSN), two senior officers familiar with the developments said on Monday.
While the first is the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road that provides connectivity to the country’s northern-most outpost, Daulat Beg Oldi, the second road being built from Sasoma to Saser La could eventually provide an alternative route to DBO near the Karakoram pass, said one of the two officers. The Sasoma-Saser La road axis is south-west of DBO.
Both projects are being executed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which is ferrying 11,815 workers to areas near the China border in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand for building strategic roads, as first reported by Hindustan Times on May 31.
India is not allowing the border confrontation with China to hinder strategic road projects in forward areas, including the Ladakh sector, where soldiers of the two nations are eyeball-to-eyeball at four locations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), said the second officer cited above.
The current Chinese troop build-up in the Galwan valley threatens the critical 255-km DS-DBO road (also known as the SSN road), and top experts and China watchers have argued that India should build an alternative road to DBO.
The road from Sasoma to Saser La, at a height of almost 17,800 feet, is a tough project that falls under “Hardness Index-III”, the BRO’s top-most classification for hard projects, the second official added. Experts believe that the road can be extended to Brang Sa, Murgo and eventually DBO in the long term. BRO officials weren’t available for a comment.
“There’s a 200% need to have an alternative road to DBO in Sub-Sector North. The DS-DBO road can be interdicted at several choke points by Chinese forces during hostilities. While the road from Sasoma to Saser La can connect with DBO, it will be an engineering challenge due to the terrain. It may require construction of a tunnel too,” said Lieutenant General BS Jaswal (retd), a former Northern Army commander.
HT reported on May 27 that if the DS-DBO project is blocked, the Indian Army will be forced to use aerial supply lines and also build an arduous alternative route linking Sasoma to Murgo to DBO through the glaciated Saser La. Two years ago, the BRO said the Sasoma-Saser La road would be the world’s first motorable glaciated road.
Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), also a former Northern Army commander, said the construction of Sasoma-Saser La road in the glaciated terrain posed a huge challenge, especially in the final patches near Saser La.
“If we can build this road and further connect it to DBO, it could provide an alternative route during summer months. However, the all-weather DS-DBO road will remain very important for the army,” Hooda said.
The defence ministry told Parliament’s standing committee on defence last year that the Sasoma-Saser La road was a challenging project because of its peculiarities.
“Due to peculiarity of formation and shifting of moraines, the road suffers continuous shifting resulting in various gradients… The Central Road Research Institute has been approached for providing solution and the proposal based on CRRI recommendation is being prepared,” the ministry told the panel.
Amid the border stand-off, top officials said the BRO would complete all 61 strategic roads assigned to it along the China border by December 2022 for swifter mobilisation of troops and stores to forward areas.
A day after the external affairs ministry said that India and China will continue military and diplomatic contacts to resolve the border stand-off, defence minister Rajnath Singh met the chief of defence staff and the three service chiefs and reviewed the situation along the disputed border in the Ladakh sector.
An hours-long meeting on Saturday between a delegation led by Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, commander of Leh-based 14 Corps, and a Chinese delegation headed by Major General Liu Lin, commander of the South Xinjiang military region, at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC ended without a breakthrough.
The external affairs ministry said the meeting “took place in a cordial and positive atmosphere” and both sides agreed to work towards peacefully resolving the situation.
In the first official acknowledgement of a troop build-up along the disputed border with China. Singh last week said a significant number of Chinese troops were present along the LAC and the Indian Army had matched the neighbour’s military moves.
China has marshalled close to 5,000 soldiers and deployed tanks and artillery guns on its side of the disputed border in the Ladakh sector, where India has also sent military reinforcements, as reported by HT on May 26.
The situation of the ground remains unchanged in the midst of efforts to break the stalemate, said officials. They added that increased Chinese air activity had been observed on the other side of the LAC during the last few days.