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India has a 3488 Km[i] long common border with China that runs along Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The LAC is generally divided into three sectors:
- The western sector in Ladakh on one side, and Tibet and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions on the opposite side
- Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh on the Indian side and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) on the other side
- In the eastern sector, Arunachal Pradesh is on the Indian side, and TAR is on the Chinese side.
The border is not fully delineated, and the process of clarification and ratification of the LAC has not been completed so far, as it has been delayed from the Chinese side. The area is characterised by high-altitude terrain and a scant population, which have resulted in insufficient infrastructure development. While upgrading capacities and frameworks in border areas, the rugged terrain and inclement weather conditions have been the most significant difficulties.
China is intensifying the building of model villages or Xiaokang villages near the LAC, facing Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, and the Chumbi valley, which abuts the strategically vital Siliguri corridor. This is over and above its infrastructure development plan and additional deployments along the LAC.[ii] The border villages near the LAC built by Chinese authorities can be used for twin purposes. China is constantly upgrading its road, rail and air network system to respond to a situation or mobilise forces.
While announcing the Union Budget of 2022-23, Indian Finance Minister, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman, advocated for the ‘Vibrant Villages’ programme near the LAC. This programme would aim to develop model villages close to the border, especially the LAC. The plan is envisaged to counter Chinese initiatives to claim villages along the LAC.[iii] Roughly there are about 500 villages along the LAC on the Indian side which are almost devoid of habitat. Border villages with a scarce population, limited connectivity and infrastructure are often left out of the development benefits. Under this programme, the construction of infrastructure, housing, tourists centre, road connectivity, renewable energy, DTH facilities, and resources for the sustainable development of these villages would be undertaken holistically. There will be constant monitoring of these projects.
In April 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs informed the Lok Sabha that the Government had allocated six times more funds for infrastructure development near the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. It has been augmented from Rs 42.87 crore in 2020-21 to Rs 249.12 crore in 2021-22. The Union Minister of State for Home, Nityanand Rai, said in the Lok Sabha that Rs 602.30 crore in the year 2021-22 and Rs 355.12 crore in 2020-21 have been allotted for improving substructure along the international border as per the provision laid down by the Border Infrastructure and Management (BIM) scheme.[iv]
Taking a stride in the direction of developing border areas near LAC, the Arunachal Pradesh government is focusing on three border villages viz Kaho, Kibithoo and Meshai. This step of the state government synchronises with the steps initiated by the Indian State to boost border management, increase development projects, stop migration from the border areas near the LAC and check the assertiveness of our adversary. The focus will be on the 3Cs representing Cluster, Convergence and Community development.[v]
The Eastern Command of the Indian Army is meticulously monitoring the Government of Arunachal Pradesh to expand the program and enhance the first line of defence near the LAC. The existence of a string of border villages is crucial from numerous points of view. In 1999, the Indian Army in Kargil was informed by local shepherds about infiltration by the Pakistan Army. The local populace acts as critical informants to the security forces and helps in safeguarding national territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Nevertheless, the border areas are neglected, resulting in meager connectivity, underdevelopment and harsh living environments, triggering enormous migration from such areas. These areas are seeing an enormous emigration due to hostile living conditions, abysmal infrastructure, lack of connectivity and poor health and education facilities all along the border.
Certain villages in border districts are completely depopulated and called ghost villages. Migration from the border areas generates both internal and external security problems. Internally, it could burden the resources in urban areas and externally it gives scope to our adversary to encroach on the empty territory. Likewise, the migration of the local population from the border areas creates another challenge in acclimatising outsiders to these places. The local populace is more familiar with the environment and terrain and is thus more viable than those coming from outside.
China has developed about 358 border villages near their side of the LAC to keep a vigil on movement in the border areas, thus, checking the inimical elements and infiltration. China knows that any straight deployment of PLA troops along the border areas will lead to a tense confrontation with the Indian armed forces, which are more experienced in mountain warfare. Consequently, the PRC is working to build up its presence in the border areas. China, in the guise of developing these villages, is changing the demography of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). It is believed that China is trying to replicate the Xinjiang model in TAR by establishing large internment camps. Under the veil of the poverty alleviation program. China is changing demography, fortifying borders and preparing itself for any eventuality at the border.[vi]
Conclusion: There is a need to chalk out a clear-cut strategy in India to counter the development of Chinese ghost villages near the LAC. The Indian Government must support settlement in far-flung areas near the border. The development of infrastructure should support the means of livelihood. Emphasis could be laid on tourism, cash crops, horticulture, floriculture, village and khadi industries, etc. A separate ministry could be created to look after the development of Border Areas and to generate funds an ‘Ecological Tax’ could be levied on tourists visiting such areas.
Tensions along the LAC affect both India and China. Peace and tranquillity are a must at the borders. India must gear up all its resources to meet the unpredictability of China. We can’t change our neighbours but definitely should be able to manage them properly.
There should not be any self-deception about the preparedness of Indian defence forces. They must have real strength to force our adversary to think twice before igniting conflicts at our borders.