What if China wrings In­dia’s ‘Chicken’s Neck’ – the Silig­uri cor­ri­dor? Here are some coun­ter­mea­sures

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - An Ecstasy Of Ideas - Mo­hin­der Pal Singh

The Silig­uri cor­ri­dor, a nar­row pas­sage to In­dia’s eight north-east­ern (NE) states, is a peren­nial threat to our se­cu­rity. Strate­gi­cally, it is the Achilles heel in the de­fence of al­most 2,000 km of bor­ders in the NE states with China and Myan­mar. This piece of land is about 60 km in length but a mea­gre 22 km in width at its nar­row­est point. With plain ter­rain not in­ter­spersed with any nat­u­ral or man made ob­sta­cles, this patch makes de­fence a real chal­lenge.

Un­doubt­edly, this 2,000 sq km stretch of land will be the prime and early tar­get of the en­emy dur­ing any con­fronta­tion. Nat­u­rally, the road cor­ri­dor pass­ing through this nar­row cor­ri­dor be­comes a vi­tal piece of ground which must be de­fended at all costs.

In 2003, In­dia and China came to an agree­ment whereby China agreed to Sikkim’s ad­di­tion to In­dia and gave up all claims to the state and In­dia recog­nised China’s sovereignt­y over Ti­bet. Whilst this sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced the es­ca­la­tion in the In­di­aBhutan-China tri-junc­tion re­gion, China’s at­tempts to seize de facto control over the re­gion con­tin­ued. It cul­mi­nated in the Dok­lam stand­off be­tween In­dia and China dur­ing June-Au­gust 2017.

The threat to the Silig­uri cor­ri­dor (also known as Chicken’s Neck) is peren­nial as China has con­tin­ued its overt road and airstrip con­struc­tion ac­tiv­i­ties on its side of the bor­der. This could al­low China to rapidly mo­bilise and de­ploy troops thereby threat­en­ing the Silig­uri cor­ri­dor.

This dis­tance of about 100 km could eas­ily be de­vel­oped into an el­e­vated road and rail cor­ri­dor through Bangladesh

Fur­ther­more, the de­ploy­ment of ar­tillery, mis­siles or anti-air­craft weaponry could eas­ily jeop­ar­dise In­dia’s ef­forts to re­sup­ply the re­gion in time of war, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that there is only a sin­gle rail­way line through the re­gion to NE states.

Widen­ing and strength­en­ing this cor­ri­dor is im­per­a­tive. The first op­tion for In­dia is to en­ter into a treaty with Bangladesh per­mit­ting not only tran­sit of mil­i­tary equip­ment dur­ing times of con­flict but also civil­ian traf­fic and trade ac­tiv­i­ties. This would add a layer of strate­gic depth in the re­gion and al­le­vi­ate (in some mea­sure) con­cerns of the pos­si­ble sev­er­ance of the north-east with the main­land.

The treaty can cover mul­ti­modal trans­port in­clud­ing road and rail and a smooth move­ment of freight and per­son­nel. With the re­vival of Bim­stec In­dia’s re­la­tions with Bangladesh have seen afil­lip, with seven pacts on im­por­tant mu­tual is­sues signed dur­ing Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina’s re­cent four-day visit. In­dia and Bangladesh have al­ready mooted a pro­posal to fa­cil­i­tate tran­sit with In­dia’s land­locked north­east and PMs of both coun­tries have is­sued joint state­ments in this re­gard in 2010 and 2016.

Cur­rently, there is a joint work­ing group which is ex­am­in­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of con­nect­ing Ma­hen­dra­ganj in Megha­laya to Hili in Ben­gal through Gor­aghat, Palash­bari and Gaibandha in Bangladesh. This dis­tance of about 100 km could eas­ily be de­vel­oped into an el­e­vated road and rail cor­ri­dor through Bangladesh. Such a cor­ri­dor, if built in PPP mode can re­sult in reg­u­lar tar­iff to Bangladesh and pro­vide a shot in the arm to trade and tourism in NE states.

The sec­ond op­tion is to strengthen con­nec­tiv­ity to the tri-junc­tion area at Doka La so that our re­sponse as well as sur­veil­lance ca­pa­bil­ity is aug­mented. To­wards this, re­cent reports of con­vert­ing the erst­while mule track to Doka La into a black-top road by the Bor­der Road Or­gan­i­sa­tion and re­duc­ing the travel time from 7 hours to 40 min­utes is a step in the right di­rec­tion.

The third op­tion is to make al­ter­nate trans­port ar­range­ments which are safe and se­cure within the coun­try it­self. The devel­op­ment of a multi-modal trans­port cor­ri­dor through Silig­uri it­self can be un­der­taken by In­dia. As part of this ini­tia­tive we can even build un­der­ground road tun­nels which are less likely to be sus­cep­ti­ble to air and ar­tillery at­tack in a time of a mil­i­tary con­flict.

Un­der­ground tun­nelling through this vul­ner­a­ble stretch, al­though costly, can give In­dia a lit­tle more room to take harder mil­i­tar­ily op­tions, if re­quired. Un­der­ground ex­press­ways and high speed rail con­nec­tiv­ity through this cor­ri­dor will also help to scale up the move­ment of civil and mil­i­tary traf­fic. This would also en­hance trade and tourism of the NE re­gion man­i­fold dur­ing peace­time.

With some of these mea­sures In­dia can look to over­come the con­straints im­posed by ge­og­ra­phy and im­prove its po­si­tion with re­gard to China.

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