Sunday, June 23, 2024

BRO: Looking Ahead, Going Beyond

Lt Gen Rajeev Chaudhry (r)

Lt Gen Rajeev Chaudhry (r), Ex-DGBR

The Milestones.

Since its inception in 1960, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has successfully supported security forces in all conflict situations and also contributed immensely to the socio-economic development of the nation. Initially started with just two projects, Beacon in Srinagar and Vartak in Tezpur, to develop road infrastructure in Jammu & Kashmir and the Eastern region; today, BRO has expanded to 18 projects and constructed 62,214 km of roads, 1005 bridges, seven tunnels and 21 airfields all along the land borders.

 BRO has equilibrated its functioning after being placed under MoD in 2015 and certain key reforms enunciated in 2017. It emerged as a formidable force post-Galwan clash by accelerating its projects along Northern borders under the most crucial conditions, thereby proving its latent capabilities. It was during this period that BRO registered nine world records and is in the process of creating three more in the next two years, which brought its work into the limelight at the global construction platform. At this stage, it is essential to not only maintain its newly acquired momentum but also go beyond assumed capacities.

Galwan Trigger

The Galwan Valley clash between Indian and Chinese troops in June 2020 served as an inflection point for India, highlighting several critical areas requiring immediate attention and strategic reassessment. The clash was a stark reminder of the strategic vulnerabilities associated with inadequate border infrastructure. In the face of an increasingly assertive China, the need for India to rapidly upgrade its infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) became a strategic compulsion. The historical oversight by past Governments, characterized by a lack of focus on border infrastructure, resulted in inadequate road connectivity, hindering timely mobilization and logistical support to the troops deployed on the first line of defence. Previous governments operated under the apprehension of provoking neighbouring countries, treating border villages merely as buffer zones rather than integral parts of the Nation. The successive Governments since independence operated through an established narrative that improved roads along the borders could potentially be exploited by adversaries, which was an extremely defensive and regressive approach, effectively stalling the development and accessibility of these critical areas.

Unprecedented Transformation.

Budget Boost. The Galwan standoff between India and China on the LAC compelled us to give a serious rethink on our funding and policies regarding border infrastructure development. The Government has demonstrated remarkable foresight and commitment towards bolstering India’s border infrastructure by responding to this challenge of shrinking the road head differential with China all along the Northern Borders by enhancing the budget of BRO incrementally by 160% during the last four years. Earlier, for years on, the budget was constantly pegged at Rs 2000 Cr or so for Army roads, which resulted in the slowing down of ongoing projects due to cost and time overruns. In the interim budget of 2024-25, Rs 6500 Cr has been allocated for strategic roads.

Incremental budgetary support over the last four years, infusion of new technologies and products besides the latest equipment and machines, worked like a magic potion in consuming Rs 45238 Cr in the last four years against Rs 45,194 Cr during nine years of pre-Galwan period.

Revamp of Inventory. The substantial increase in budget significantly revamped the organization’s equipment profile in a short period. BRO has discarded its old machines and equipment and significantly upgraded its inventory with the latest machinery including advanced excavators, wagon/crawler rock drills, and snow cutters, enhancing its operational readiness and efficiency. The strategic deployment of Chinook helicopters and other airlift assets has improved access and logistics support in challenging terrains of Ladakh, Uttarakhand and North East. In a move towards Atmnirbhar Bharat, a major policy decision was taken to sign an MOU with the Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) for the production of 60 Double Lane Class 70 modular bridges. These bridges, a first of their kind in India, are designed for rapid construction and are capable of supporting two-way traffic, significantly reducing costs to one–third compared to their imported counterparts. These are engineered to accommodate all kinds of military equipment such as the heaviest of tanks, artillery guns, and multi-axle load-carrying trucks. To date, about 30 of these strategically important bridges have already been constructed at key locations along India’s Northern borders, bolstering the nation’s infrastructure and defence readiness.

Class 70 Double Lane Modular Bridge at Flag Hill

Strategic Surge.   Through the enhanced funding and streamlining of processes during the last four years and visionary leadership at the helm of affairs, BRO has come out of its own shadows of poor quality of work, slow pace of construction and archaic practices. Improved roads, bridges, tunnels and airfields near the border areas are not only crucial for the rapid mobilization of troops, armaments and materials in times of conflict but also play a vital role in enhancing the living conditions of military personnel stationed in these remote areas. Additionally, well-developed border infrastructure serves as a strong deterrent, signaling a nation’s readiness to defend its territory and maintain its sovereignty under all circumstances. This strategic surge in last mile connectivity all along the LAC by BRO certainly has conveyed a firm message to China that she no longer is dealing with a weak-willed adversary but a very strong Nation fast rising as a global economic giant.

Siyom bridge is first signature arch bridge made by BRO

Road Network Expansion.   The BRO has made monumental advances in constructing roads during the last few years and the rate of construction has impressively increased as compared to yesteryears. A remarkable highlight is the creation of the world’s highest motorable road in Ladakh connecting Chisumle to Demchok passing through the UmlingLa at a breathtaking altitude of 19,024 feet.

World’s highest motorable road at Umlingla (19024 feet)

Bridging the Gaps. In bridging the gaps, BRO took a strategic decision in 2021 to make class 70 its mainstay bridge to enable all tanks, artillery guns and multi-axle load-carrying vehicles to be taken to the forwardmost locations when needed, enhancing the mobility of troops and logistical support across challenging terrains. Noteworthy is the construction of the world’s highest multi-span bridge at Saser Brangsa (14900 feet) over Shyok River in Eastern Ladakh, employing advanced materials to ensure durability in harshest of weather conditions. This bridge is an engineering marvel spanning a gap of 345 m and resting over seven piers each being supported by 47 micro piles. The added feature of this bridge is that it has been constructed including planning, designing and contracting during a single working season during year 2023.

World’s highest multi-span bridge at Saser Brangsa (14900 ft) constructed in just 174 days 

Tunnelling Achievements.    BRO’s accomplishments in tunneling are significant, with the completion of four major tunnels post Galwan, including the strategically important Sela tunnel, which was inaugurated by the Honourable Prime Minister on 09 Mar 24. This tunnel is the longest bi-lane tunnel in the world above 13000 feet and the highest transportation tunnel in India. Presently work is on full swing on 10 tunnels and BRO is poised to take on at least eight more tunnels in the near future for which the planning process is near complete, out of which six would be higher than Mont Blanc (15771 feet) – the highest peak of Alps. Till now the world used to look with awe and admiration at mountain tunnels in the Alps but the focus is sooner shifting to India when it comes to construction of tunnels at super high altitudes.

Sela Tunnel: India’s highest transportation tunnel and World’s longest twin tube tunnel above 13000 feet

Airfield Development.    BRO’s role extends to the construction and upgrading of airfields, with notable projects completed in July 2023 at Bagdogra and Barrackpore Airfields enhancing the operational capacity of the Indian Air Force in the Eastern Sector. BRO has made 21 airfields since its inception along Northern borders. The work is going on in full swing at Nyoma Air Base which will provide a strategic edge to the Indian Air Force over China and extend the operational and logistic reach of the Army in Eastern Ladakh.

Accelerated Pace of work post-Galwan.   Post Galwan, BRO intensified its efforts to develop border infrastructure, a move that can be seen as part of India’s broader strategy to strengthen its position along the LAC. Most of the strategically crucial projects, including Umlingla Road, alternate connectivity to DBO from Sasoma to Gapshan, a 345-meter-long bridge at Saser Brangsa, the road to Hot Spring, Nimu – Padum – Darcha road connected as the third axis to Ladakh, connectivity to Thangla, Topidunga, Milam, Jollingkong, Lipulekh, Doklam, Yangtse, Huri, Taksing, Maza, Lamang and Gelling, were all achieved post Galwan. Also, road connectivity has been established to all forwardmost posts in Eastern Ladakh and a 121 km long road connecting Chushul-Dungti-Fukche-Demchok along the LAC is in the final stages of completion. The work on the Likaru-Migla-Fukche road in the Chumar sector is on, making it the highest road in the world soon at 19400 feet. With such a road network coming up, now the reinforcements can reach the point of conflict in the fastest time frame, giving us an operational and strategic edge over China which was never thought of a few years back. Bagdogra and Barrackpore airfields, Chamba, Nechiphu, and Sela tunnels were also completed during this phase, by motivating cutting-edge leadership to put in their best and function in mission mode.        

Chinook Helicopters used to lift machines to create multiple attack points

Taming Zojila, Breaking Mindsets.  Ladakh remains cut off from the rest of the country during winters when both routes – one from Srinagar and the other from Manali to Leh get closed. In an unprecedented move, BRO significantly reduced the closure period of Zojila from the traditional 160 – 180 days in the past to 110 days in 2021, 73 days in 2022 and 68 days in 2023. This enhanced connectivity through Zojila Axis gave security forces an extended strategic reach through winters and saved the Government exchequer approximately Rs 350 – 400 Cr per year for air-maintaining troops deployed in Ladakh. Similarly, other 26 major passes in the Himalayas were also either kept open throughout the year or opened much ahead of schedule, thereby enabling easier logistics build-up for the troops deployed ahead. This has led to operational and economic benefits, including significant savings for the Indian Army and local economies.

Zojila no more remains formidable

Infusion of New Technology, Digitisation and Automation. Post Galwan, BRO has put in extraordinary efforts through the infusion of numerous new technologies, after extensive trials, to accelerate the pace of work. BRO has also launched a pilot project to use steel slag for the construction of roads. From planning to contracting, to execution, the organization has left the old mindset behind and adopted new methodology available. BRO has digitized all its roads and put it on GIS for ease of better future planning and integration with other ministries working in the same domain. Through the use of 11 new software, specifically designed to meet BRO’s ground requirements, executives and staff are in a better position to monitor the progress of all its projects spread along land borders in 11 states and 3 UTs.

BRO is to use Steel slag for construction of roads

Green Construction. During the past three years, BRO has integrated environmental conservation into its infrastructure projects in a big way by adopting sustainable practices, significantly mitigating the ecological impact of construction activities. A few examples are given below:

  • Energy Efficient Buildings at Leh.
  • Carbon Neutral Habitat at Hanle.
  • Environment-Friendly Shelters for CPLs.
  • Use of Steel Slag in Arunachal Pradesh.
  • Use of Plastic in road construction in North Eastern States.
  • Induction of Electric Vehicles in BRO.
  • Use of Green Diesel in collaboration with IOC.
  • Use of Geotextiles, Hydro Seeding and Bio Mass as slope stabilization techniques on roads.
  • Use of pre-fabricated culverts in Ladakh.
  • Use of Cut and Fit Technology at Panging in Arunachal Pradesh thereby all components of the road from drains, breast walls, pavement members, etc to be pre casted and fitted at the location to cut down considerably on environmental degradation.
Use of Cut and Fit technology fixing precast members at Panging

Experimenting with GeM.   Demonstrating an exponential increase in GeM procurement, BRO has not only tripled its transactions on the platform during the last three years but also pioneered the listing of essential construction materials like Steel, Cement, and Bailey Bridges. The strategic utilization of GeM has yielded considerable benefits, including a 33% reduction in acquisition timelines, roughly 20% savings on costs due to reverse auctions and an overall cost reduction of 12-14%. This not only has saved approximately Rs 480 Cr per year of public money but also accelerated the infrastructure projects besides enhancing the quality. DGBR was invited as a sole speaker from Central Government departments to share BRO’s GeM experience to enhance transparency, inclusivity, efficiency and eradication of corruption, with delegates of G20 nations on 01 March 23 at Gurugram.

BRO’s commitment and success in leveraging GeM have been recognized with prestigious awards, including the Silver Certificate for GeM procurement and the Gold Standard Certification for timely payments in the Central Govt Category (90% of the payments to its contractors are made in nine days) for two consecutive years in FY 2021-22 and FY 2022-23. In FY 2022-23, BRO set a record with procurement of Rs 1853 Cr through GeM. The procurement procedures have now been institutionalized, which has not only been a huge money saver of Government funds but also enhanced quality, speed and transparency in the execution of projects besides instilling huge confidence in the firms working with BRO about timely payments.

Stimulating Socio-Economic Growth. In its mission to enhance connectivity, the BRO has taken significant strides to extend road infrastructure to the most remote and previously inaccessible regions, thereby integrating some of the country’s most isolated areas with the mainland. A noteworthy achievement in this endeavour is the construction of a 180-foot bridge in Sanklang-Toong, Sikkim, on Tulung Chu road, affectionately termed the ‘Bridge of Hope’ by locals. This infrastructure marvel has drastically reduced the journey for villagers to Saffo Village from a grueling 56 km drive plus a 14 km trek to a direct route, symbolizing a tangible link to progress and opportunity. The BRO’s impact is profoundly felt in regions like Demchok in Ladakh, Jolingkong in Uttarakhand, and Huri Village in Arunachal Pradesh, where roads have connected the most remote villages to the mainstream of the country.

The construction of the 278 km Hapoli-Sarli-Huri road in Arunachal Pradesh’s Kurung Kumey district has triggered reverse migration in the region. Huri has air maintained since independence. The population of Huri village had dwindled from 200 to 49 as all the young people migrated to bigger villages or towns in search of better opportunities. After the construction of the bridge on River Kumey in Jun 2021 and the road in Sep 2021, the people returned to Huri. Today the population has gone up to 300, a primary school has been opened and a Primary Health Centre has come up there. Some of the old people had seen helicopters but never a vehicle in their lives. Moreover, this road has moved our security matrix much closer to LAC making it easier for our troops to reach the conflict points faster in case of any contingency. These developmental activities also strengthen our claim lines in such remote and forward areas.

Hapoli- Sarli –Huri Road with bridge on river Kumey

Expanding its reach to the extremities of the country, the BRO recently connected the southernmost point of India with the completion of the North-South Road from Campbell Bay to Indira Point in Great Nicobar Island. This milestone achievement on 24 January 2023, epitomizes BRO’s commitment to unifying the country’s diverse landscapes and communities.

BRO Karmyogis at Southern most point of India

Dignity and Social Security for CPLs. BRO employs approximately 70,000 casual paid labourers (CPLs) whose efforts are pivotal in executing the daunting tasks in inhospitable terrains. In a transformative move to uplift the living standards of CPLs, the organization has provided an array of amenities designed to cater to both their professional and personal well-being. Prefabricated shelters, Porta Cabins, and Bio Toilets have been introduced to improve living conditions. Recognizing the extreme weather they often face, the BRO has equipped CPLs with Super High-Altitude Clothing, while recreational facilities have been established to bolster morale, leading to increased productivity and the ability to work for extended periods.

Hon’ble RM presenting Blankets to Local CPLs at Shyok Bridge Site on 28 Oct 2022

This comprehensive welfare approach was bolstered by a landmark decision in January 2024, when the Raksha Mantri approved a term insurance scheme for CPLs. Additionally, in September 2023, a policy was introduced to repatriate the mortal remains of deceased CPLs to their native places and cover funeral expenses, alleviating the burden on their families. Also, Raksha Mantri has approved a proposal to waive the requirement of completing 179 days at the time of the accident for the payment of ex-gratia lump sum compensation to CPLs working in BRO. The combined effect of these welfare initiatives has been substantial, fostering a sense of dignity and security among CPLs. This dedicated workforce is the best example of providing direct jobs to the people of Border States where BRO is executing its projects. Besides direct jobs, BRO is also generating numerous indirect jobs and employment of youth at multiple levels.

Women Empowerment. Initially, women in the BRO found their roles confined to staff appointments, however, the narrative shifted gears towards a more inclusive and empowered framework for women officers on the 8th of March 2021, a date now etched in the annals of the organization’s history. The Director General Border Roads (DGBR), on that day, enacted a transformative policy decision to foster a gender-neutral environment aligning with the Indian Government’s “Nari Sashaktikaran” initiative. A woman officer was given the command of a Road Construction Company (RCC) responsible for the Munshiyari to Milam glacier road in Uttarakhand’s rugged Kumaon region on Apr 21. Another woman officer was given command for the construction of roads and bridges in the challenging Siang valley of Arunachal Pradesh. Following suit, a woman officer from the Army was posted as Officer Commanding of an RCC on Aug 21 at Pipalkoti, Chamoli district, overseeing the development up to the Mana pass – India’s second highest pass. This was also made into the first all-women RCC where all three platoon commanders were also women officers as well as RCC doctor was also a woman officer.

Taking this initiative ahead, a woman officer of the rank of Colonel was appointed as Commander of a Task Force at Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh on Feb 23. She became the first woman officer to lead a Task Force in BRO. In Jun 23, Col Ponung Doming was selected to head a Task Force at Hanle (15000 ft), Ladakh, which was shifted specially to handle some strategically very important BRO projects.

The contribution of these women officers is paving the way for others to join and excel in BRO. Women empowerment in the BRO is more than a policy; it’s a promise of participation, equality, and excellence. This progressive ethos within the BRO serves as a beacon, guiding India’s journey toward a future where gender no longer defines capability or destiny.

Research & Development.   BRO started two “Centres of Excellence” dealing with ‘Road Safety and Awareness’ and ‘Collation of all data related to Roads, Bridges, Airfields and Tunnels’, which were inaugurated in Jun 2021 by Raksha Mantri.

Centre of Excellence for Road Safety & Awareness started functioning in Jun 2021

Also, BRO is the only Government organization that has prepared and published “BRO VISION 2047”, its vision document to cover the period of Amrit Kaal.  In envisioning future development and reforms, several strategic initiatives have been suggested to enhance the Research and Development (R&D) capabilities of BRO.

Putting India on Global Construction Map.     Even amidst the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the progress of the BRO work did not slacken. Today BRO is performing at its utmost potential and has established nine world records post Galwan including the highest road at Umlingla (19024 feet) and Atal Tunnel, the longest tunnel above 10000 feet. BRO today is poised to create four other world records in the near future, at the most rugged heights working under the harshest climatic conditions.

  • World’s Highest Tunnel. The ShinkunLa tunnel placed at an altitude of 15855 feet will connect 36 villages of Zanskar to 137 villages of Lahaul Spiti and would be the world’s highest tunnel beating the record of China’s Mila tunnel (15584 feet).
  • World’s Highest Road. BRO started constructing the world’s highest road on 15 Aug 23, connecting Likaru – Migla (19400 feet) – Fukche through a distance of 64 km. The road will break BRO’s own record of Umlingla.
  • World’s Highest Fighter Air Base. The work is going on in full swing at Nyoma Air Base which will provide a strategic edge to the Indian Air Force over China and extend the operational and logistics reach of the Army in Eastern Ladakh.
  • World’s Biggest 3D printed complex. BRO is making the world’s biggest 3D printed complex at Chandigarh to facilitate faster and smoother induction of materials, machines and men in Ladakh to accelerate all the crucial strategic projects along LAC.

As these projects on our Northern borders reach completion, the strategic upper hand once enjoyed by China through its rapid infrastructural expansion in TAR is fast being neutralized. The post-Galwan surge in border infrastructure development by the BRO has significant strategic implications. It not only enhances India’s military preparedness and operational capabilities along the LAC but also serves as a testament to India’s commitment to defending its territorial integrity.

Way Ahead 

Post Galwan, BRO realigned its priorities to provide last-mile connectivity on the Northern borders, with increased attention to Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. The increased visibility to BRO works, providing better living conditions to its CPLs at work sites, and enhancing their social security through major financial schemes, as well as galvanizing the workforce by giving due recognition, awards, and getting long-awaited allowances for working in the most challenging conditions in parity with other forces functioning in similar locations, made a huge impact on the work culture and resulted in accelerating the overall work pace.

BRO today, is on an upward trajectory on vital indicators of expenditure, speed, quality and transparency. There is a compulsive need to maintain the momentum achieved through effective steering and continuous internal reforms. Demonstrating exceptional skills in various construction sectors, BRO is emerging as a source of inspiration within the global construction industry. The world records achieved by BRO are more than engineering marvels; these symbolize human grit and resilience, cutting-edge leadership and government foresight and support.

The journey of BRO is a testament to India’s unwavering commitment to its border regions. By consolidating efforts and embracing long-term policy reforms to simplify processes and reconfigure its structures, BRO can shrink the infrastructure differential on our Northern borders to bring parity with China in the next five years, subject to assured fund flow and easing out on bureaucratic control on its everyday functioning.

As BRO continues to carve pathways through the mountains and valleys, it not only connects territories but also bridges the gap between ambition and reality, resilience and progress, duty and compassion. In its relentless pursuit to bolster India’s defence capabilities and socio-economic development, the BRO has emerged not just as an organization but as a robust symbol of India’s fortitude, ingenuity and unwavering spirit which is Connecting Places, Connecting People…

Lt Gen Rajeev Chaudhry (r), Ex-DGBR was commissioned into the Corps of Engineers in Dec 1983. After serving for nearly 40 years, he retired on 30 Sep 2023. During his last assignment of DGBR, he doubled the pace of work to meet stringent targets post-Galwan clash and worked to get an incremental budget allocation of 160% for GS roads during his tenure.

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