Budget 2018: Tunnel Under Sela Pass in Arunachal is Good News for the Army, Spicejet

This fulfils a long-pending demand of the people of Tawang, and the army, which faces a huge challenge every winter to keep the Pass open.

The road to nowhere: The Lumla-Bleteng road ending on India-Bhutan border. Credit: The Wire/Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

New Delhi: Union finance minister Arun Jaitley said in his budget speech today that he proposed “to take up construction of tunnel under Sela Pass” in Arunachal Pradesh with the aim of developing “connectivity infrastructure in the border areas”.

“For promoting tourism and emergency medical care, the government will (also) make necessary framework for encouraging investment in sea plane activities,” Jaitley said.

The finance minister’s speech clearly fulfilled a long-pending demand of not just the people of Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang area, living across the 13,700 feet Sela Pass that falls between the northeastern state’s West Kameng and Tawang districts as it remains under snow half the year, but the army too.

Every winter, the army faces a huge challenge keeping the Pass open as it is the only route that connects a part of India’s border with China. It was this front that the Chinese used to enter India in 1962 and overpowered the Indian army columns present there.

Additionally, Jaitley’s budgetary allocation is also good news for the business house of Spicejet. As per media reports, Spicejet, which plans to bring to India 100 seaplanes at a cost of Rs 400 crore to “bring the remotest parts of India into the mainstream aviation network”, is particularly eyeing the northeastern states for this project and has already carried out a trial in Guwahati last  October.

The Centre’s decision to allocate a budget for the tunnel under the Pass comes after an announcement was made by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in July last year that two tunnels would be made under the Pass to provide all-weather access to the army along the India-China border. As per a press note issued by the BRO headquarters in Itanagar last July 24, the tunnels would cut down the 171-km distance between Bomdila town in West Kameng district and Tawang by about 10 km.

“The tunnels would cut down at least an hour of travel time between the Army’s 4 Corps headquarters at Tezpur (in Assam) and Tawang,” it said.

An army truck passing by Sela Pass. Credit: The Wire/Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

The release then said the BRO, under its Project Vartak, had already begun the process of formal requisition of land in the West Kameng district for the construction of the tunnels. While one tunnel would be of 475 metres, the length of the other would be 1,790 metres through Sela-Chabrela ridge meeting the Balipara-Chaudar-Tawang road on the Nuranang side.

The project also constitutes widening of the single-lane national highway 13 to double lane from the Baisaki army post.

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The BRO’s decision came after the India government failed to make any headway with neighbouring Bhutan to get surface access to be able to connect Tezpur with Tawang by road. While BRO reportedly spent Rs 20 crore to build a road from Tawang to Lumla in 2016, and a Hyderabad-based private construction company did the stretch from Lumla to Bleteng up to the India-Bhutan border, hoping Bhutan would construct a road on its side to create an alternate (and a much shorter) land route from Tawang to Tezpur, the Bhutan government expressed reservations over it.

Speaking to The Wire in June last year, Claude Arpi, a well-known strategic affairs expert who holds a particular interest in Arunachal, said there was “little chance” of Bhutan agreeing to open the Tashigang-Lumla route.

“The matter has often been discussed between Indian and Bhutanese officials but no breakthrough could be achieved. Bhutan has its own reasons, such as restrictions on foreign entries into the country, China being on the other side of the hill, so (it) has officially opted out of BBIN MVA (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement),” he had pointed out.

Arpi told this correspondent then, “India will have to find solutions (for road connectivity) within Tawang and West Kameng districts. There is no doubt that the terrain is difficult. Tunnelling is a possibility but it will raise the cost. Foreign collaboration, maybe with Japan, is an option.”

Jaitely’s budget speech today, however, doesn’t give out any details about the outlay or possible foreign collaboration, though Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said during his visit to India last September that the two countries were looking at enhancing cooperation on development of infrastructure in India’s northeast.

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