Building roads at high altitudes

by Shahkar Abidi 20 Jun 2022


Sonam Nawang, a tourist taxi driver from Ladakh during one of his travelling assignments in 1997 chanced upon some Chinese settlements across mountainous terrains, presumably on the Indian side of the Indo-China border. Time lapsed since then even as the settlements increased with each passing year. 

The situation changed dramatically around two decades later, in 2017 when India's tiny neighbour Bhutan alerted India to the arrival of a huge convoy of construction equipment including excavators, bulldozers, tillers amongst others being brought in allegedly by the Chinese for building high altitude roads along the countries’ contested borders. Although India sprang into action by sending troops to evict the Chinese, the development consequently resulted in escalation of the tensions between the two Asian tigers. The stand-off continues even today with little progress towards a resolution of the issue.

However, the delicate and evolving situation brought home the point for India of the need to build roads and infrastructure along the bordering areas on war-footing. The Centre has since then planned construction of 64 strategic roads, stretching across 3500 km in length that will have over a 100 bridges, tunnels and highways in the region. The Border Road Organisation (BRO), part of the armed forces and mandated to provide infrastructure support to the armed forces has seen its budget spend increase over five years up 40 percent in the current year to Rs 13,500 crore over last year and may further increase to Rs 15,000 crore if things go well. The plan is also to increase the construction expenditures to over Rs 20,000 crore in next year. 

Lt Gen Rajeev Chaudhry, VSM, Director General, Border Roads Organisation, said, "There is urgency in increasing infrastructure (along the borders)". He was speaking during a conclave organised at Excon-2021; South Asia's largest trade exhibition involving construction equipment industry held in May at Bengaluru. 

As Chaudhry says, India currently is the world's third-largest military spender, accounting for 3.7 percent of worldwide military spending. The government has recognised the defence sector’s potential to strengthen 'Atma Nirbhar Bharat'. This has provided the Indian CE industry with the opportunity to lead the way for greater developments by incorporating technology to reinforce defence,” he added continuing that with the recent projects for developing roads, bridges and airfields in hostile environments, there are opportunities for CE players to collaborate and further enable the defence sector. While the road infrastructure developed has received a boost in the past five years, the opportunities are humongous at the holistic levels with India's defence manufacturing industry forecasted to grow from USD 850 billion currently to USD 1 trillion by 2022 before multiplying five times to 5 trillion USD by 2047.

Amongst the most important upcoming tunnels being built by BRO is the Shinku-La spanning 4.25 km at an altitude of 15,855 feet, thus making it the world's highest tunnel once completed. The BRO is working on throwing open the 9.80 km Brahmaputra tunnel which will make it the world's longest underwater, rail-cum-road tunnel. Going a step further, BRO is also executing a Key-La tunnel which once completed will have a total length of 8.20 km at a height of 16125 feet, which will then make it the highest tunnel in the world, even higher than Shinkun-La. 

Chaudhry highlighted that Indian industries have made some rapid strides in recent times and have been disrupted by the continuous advancement of technology. "We also aim to embrace the latest technology to meet any challenges that might threaten the country’s security. We are glad that the government has taken the necessary steps to align the CE sector and promote greater industry participation in the defence to encourage self-sufficiency, indigenization, and technological advancements.” he noted. 

Talking about the challenges faced by BRO in construction of infrastructure along the border areas, Chaudhry explained that most of its work happens in remote, inhospitable and cold areas where ambient temperature can fluctuate in the ranges from plus 50 degrees to minus 40 degrees. Also, normally the working window remains short in mountains coinciding with peak tourist season and induction of forces. The ambient also affects the construction process as leading to inadequate temperatures for cement and bituminous works. Further, insufficient setting time for layers due to non-availability of diversions apart from continuous rain and snow adversely affects quality of the work. Likewise, major terrain restrictions and low buildability due to hard rock and loose strata also remains a cause of concern during the construction phase. Lastly, lack of adequate tech support for the equipment also causes major delays in the project executions, the Defense personnel said. 

Amongst the new technologies and equipment sought by BRO includes more portable equipment such as excavators, concrete batch mixers, equipment for addressing hard rock stretches more efficiently, remote/telescopic handlers for enhanced safety in slide clearances, shortcrete machines, drain casting machines, self-loading concrete mixtures, modular bridges, rugged portable high mast/ balloon lights and scissors shifts amongst others.  

"The machines are at high altitude where the temperatures are sub-zero, so the machines don't often start easily. Their efficiency goes down because the oxygen is low," Chaudhry reveals, explaining the barrage of hardships faced by BRO personnel during the execution of work. " Most of the places are remote, wherein roads are not even cut.  There should be the possibility of taking the equipment ahead and placing it anywhere. “The heavy CE and most of the equipment should be mobile," he further adds saying it “can improve our efficiency as time is of the essence”.

Ravi Chawla, managing director, Gulf Oil who is also leader of the Excon taskforce on Defence and Paramilitary offers some perspective from the side of CE industry saying that the infrastructure sector needs to be included in the spectrum of the armed forces. "The CE industry, on its part, must incorporate standard designs and specialised state-of-the-art technology for the defence sector to sustain itself in extreme terrain conditions". He added that the upcoming Civil Engineering Conference for the Asian Region (CECAR) which will be held in September this year could act as a guiding platform to showcase India's flagship projects of the Armed forces and how technological advancements have been incorporated by the sector.

Anand Sundaresan, Past President, ICEMA said, “In order to promote Atma Nirbhart and minimise dependency on imports, India has a long way to go. The private players should design and build military systems in conjunction with DRDO and other organisations to create a robust ecosystem for our military force.“

 


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