India’s deploying its 160-year-old railways to counter China both at sea and along the Himalayas

Breathtaking views too.
Breathtaking views too.
Image: AP Photo/M. Lakshman
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

India is giving its formidable, 164-year-old railway network an increasingly strong role along its frontiers and maritime outposts.

From a line at over 10,000 feet in the country’s northeast to linking parts of its Andaman and Nicobar island chain in the Bay of Bengal, the Narendra Modi administration seems to be keen on turning Indian Railways into a strategic asset.

Interestingly, these plans indicate India’s moves at countering China. After all, India’s northeast has been part of the decades-long boundary dispute with China. Besides, the Andaman and Nicobar lie just a stone’s throw away, figuratively speaking, from the all-important Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

These moves dovetail with India’s larger aim of expanding the sphere of its strategic influence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region, mostly to counter China’s.

“There has been a growing understanding in the Indian government over the past several years of the need to develop India’s vulnerable frontier regions,” Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at Brookings Institution India Center said. “This includes the Northeast but also the Andaman and Nicobar islands. I do not think other countries can raise objections given that this is all on Indian sovereign territory.”

India’s unsinkable aircraft carrier

Andaman and Nicobar, a chain of 572 islands vertically spread across 450 nautical miles in the Bay of Bengal, lies right next to the ASEAN region. Home to ancient tribes and a rich reserve of biodiversity, this island chain is also the base of India’s only joint tri-service command, which helps in engaging with other Southeast Asian navies.

Its proximity to southeast Asia and its location overlooking critical sea routes make it a vital cog the country’s security calculations, particularly with increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. China has reportedly built an airstrip and set up radio installations on Coco Island, leased from Myanmar in 1994. And Coco is just 70 kilometre from Andaman.

So, a decision to link the island chain’s biggest cities—capital Port Blair to Diglipur in the north—could ramp up India’s logistical strength there in the future. A 14-hour, 350-kilometre bus service connects the cities right now, The Indian Express newspaper reported on Feb. 06.

“In a geographic sense, the Andaman and Nicobar islands have a front row seat to heavy levels of sea-based trade as well as to the growing sea-based rivalry between India and China,” Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for south and southeast Asia at the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said. “A railroad would make it easier for India to convey assets to other parts of the broader region if conflict contingencies or other types of emergencies demand rapid movement.”

The local administration reckons, though, that the planned rail line will help tourism through better connectivity. And that is what the government of India, too, is focused on, but with a larger picture in mind.

“The railway must be part of a wider project to improve connectivity—notably completing a long delayed (project to lay) underwater cables from the Indian mainland to Andaman and Nicobar Islands, establishing a stronger and more reliable internet signal at the naval base in Port Blair, and expanding port facilities there—to allow Andaman and Nicobar to be developed as a functioning strategic point for the Indian Navy,” Keerti Rajan, the head of Asia-Pacific at consultancy firm IHS Markit Country Risk said.

Over the last six years, naval voyages by the Indian Navy have grown at a staggering 300%, IHS Markit says. India and Japan are also planning to install a sea wall of “hydrophones”—microphones with sensors, placed on the seabed—between Andaman and Nicobar and the northern tip of Indonesia. Hydrophones can record and listen to underwater sounds, which helps to track submarine movement.

But all this is just one part of the story.

The mountains have eyes

Located at around 3,500 metres above sea level, Tawang is a picturesque haven in the Himalayas. Part of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state in the northeast, it has a long history of ties with China’s Tibet. So much so that while China claims ownership of entire Arunachal Pradesh, it is particularly insistent on Tawang, calling it part of southern Tibet.

Hence, India’s decision to build a railway line to Tawang has made many sit up and take notice. The work on the project is likely begin in 2018 and the whole venture could cost nearly Rs70,000 crore. Arunachal Pradesh itself was connected to Delhi by rail only in 2015.

“Building a railroad to Arunachal Pradesh is not the same thing as building a new military base, and so in of itself this move should not trigger multiple alarm bells in Beijing,” added Kugelman. “Still, seen in the context of India’s broader moves in a state claimed by China, including the recent defense upgrades India has made there, China could well view it as a provocation.”

While for years, China has steadily developed its side of the border with India with massive infrastructure projects, including roads, rail, and air transport facilities, India has been rather slow on its part.

“The population of the northeast has suffered substantially because of inadequate infrastructure,” Madhav Nalapat, the UNESCO Peace Chair at the department of geopolitics and international relations at Manipal University, said. “Should the level of infrastructure reach the standards present on the Chinese side, economic development and consequently public welfare will rise.”

The train to Tawang will not be seen as just another infrastructural mission, though. Since coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi govt has often taken to aggressive posturing vis a vis China.

For instance, Tawang is home to India’s biggest monastery, which follows Tibetan Buddhism. So when late last year, the Modi dispensation invited Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang, all eyes were on China.

Similarly, India also welcomed the then US ambassador to India, Richard Verma, to the Tawang festival. This came at a time when China had blocked India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

India also recently sanctioned a $750-million deal to provide Howitzer guns to troops manning its border with China and also raise a 90,000-strong mountain corps for deployment in the region.

However, building the rail route to Tawang isn’t likely to be an easy affair considering the rugged terrain. “The main issue will be the engineering challenge,” Rajan of IHS Markit said.

Nevertheless, the Narendra Modi administration is clearly signalling that it is not going to be business-as-usual anymore, particularly with reference to China. Be it on the mountains or at sea.