Three years after the violent clash between Indian and Chinese forces in Galwan followed by tanks facing each other around the Pangong Tso — a lake spanning eastern Ladakh and western Tibet — there is hectic activity in the area from both sides. While China is rushing to complete a bridge across the Pangong Tso, connecting the north and south banks, India is also building a black-topped road on its side on the north bank.
These are among a number of infrastructure developments initiated on both sides since the standoff, permanently altering the status quo on the ground in eastern Ladakh, even as the two sides await the 19th round of Corps Commander level talks to find a resolution to their dispute in the region.
“Construction of black-topped road towards Finger 4 on our side is on and is expected to be completed by 2025. There is major impetus on infrastructure, road networks, advanced landing grounds and so on,” an official source said, on condition of anonymity. This was also confirmed by another official source. In addition, construction work is at an advanced stage on the alternate axis to the critical Darbuk-Skyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road through the Saser La, the source stated.
On the Chinese side, the source said that work is now underway on the main bridge, while the secondary bridge has been completed. Recently, large scale construction activity, along with construction materials, was observed on the north bank. Apart from the bridge, work on road connectivity along the south bank towards Shandong village is also under progress, another official source said, citing intelligence inputs. A Chinese air defence site is located east of the Khurnak fort.
In addition, a 22 km-long tunnel is under construction along the G-0177 expressway at Yuli, connecting to the very important G-216 highway in Tibet.
Gridlock at Pangong Tso
India holds one-third of the 135 km-long boomerang-shaped Pangong lake. Mountain spurs of the Chang Chenmo range jutting down into the glacial lake are referred to as ‘fingers’. India has always held the lake till Finger 4, but its claims run till Finger 8, which is where the Indian perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) lies, as reiterated by India on several occasions. The north bank, which has much higher differences in the perception of the LAC than the south bank, was the initial site of the clashes in early May 2020, with tensions flaring up in the Kailash ranges in July and August 2020. The Indian Army has a permanent position near Finger 3, while the Chinese have a base east of Finger 8.
As over one lakh troops continue to be deployed on either side of the lake since 2020, the Corps Commander-level talks remain gridlocked over two remaining friction points at Depsang and Demchok. At both locations, the Chinese side has been blocking Indian patrols, the source said, while adding that there has been some climb-down on the Chinese position during the talks.
In Demchok, while there are varying claims in the Charding La area, China has set up tents on the Indian side of Charding nala, as reported earlier by The Hindu.
Strategic road network
The budgetary allocation for the Border Roads Organisation has increased sharply over the last few years; in 2023-24, for instance, BRO’s capital budget was ₹5,000 crore, 43% higher than the ₹3,500 crore allocated in 2022-23. Much of that has been spent on the India-China Border Roads (ICBR) plan.
The first source said that there has been significant progress under the second phase of the ICBR plan — which was approved in September 2020, months after the Galwan clash — under which ₹12,434.90 crore was allocated for the construction of 32 roads. The first phase of the plan, initiated in 2005, entailed the construction of 25 roads, measuring 751.58 km, at an estimated cost of ₹3,482.52 crore. Together, the first and second phases of the ICBR envisage the construction of over 1,400 km of strategic roads along the 3,488 km-long LAC. A third phase is also in the works, focussed largely on Arunachal Pradesh, it has been learnt.
The BRO is close to finishing some key infrastructure projects in the eastern sector such as the Sela, Nechipu, and Sela-Chhabrela tunnels, improving all-weather connectivity along the LAC. “Actually, for the last three years, there is a stress on improving the border infrastructure. That is why allocations are constantly going on,” the Defence Secretary informed the Parliamentary standing committee, as per a report tabled in March.