The Border Roads Organisation, known as BRO, is an enigma to most. Many who have travelled on BRO Roads have saluted in awe and smiled at their road signs, wondering how these roads were made. Some, who were stuck on remote roads in chilling weather, have stories to tell of a BRO Vehicle or machine passing by that gave a quick helping hand and simply moved on. With an incredible tally of constructing over 60,000 Km of roads and 51,000 m of bridges during their 60 years of existence, their work is still not done and often felt to be behind schedule. Few would know that there was a time in the 90s when the BRO was downsized without work, yet today it is working over-time, edging ever closer to the borders, to more extreme heights and extreme weather, proving time and again, they are the ‘Best Under Extremes’. A closer look is needed to unravel these seeming contradictions.
The BRO was set up in 1960 with the dual purpose of development of roads in remote Border States and to be able to assist the Army with road connectivity both in peace and war times. To facilitate quick decisions, the BRO was placed under the high powered Border Roads Development Board (BRDB) with a Joint Secretary (JS) as the ex-officio Secretary of the Board. The Prime Minister then chaired the board. Starting with 5 Project HQs, it now has 18 Project HQs commanded by a Brig/CE.
These are deployed along the borders (see Plate-1), including a Task Force (TF) in A&N Islands. A project has Task forces (TFs) with Road/Bridge Construction Companies (RCC & BCC), executing tasks through tailor-made platoons for construction and maintenance of roads, bridges and DCBs for the Army.
There are a total of 250 platoons that are the cutting edge. Manning in BRO is a combination of GREF personnel and personnel from the Army. Plant and equipment is held by the TFs and they, along with Civil Paid Labour (CPL), plan and execute their tasks.
The BRO is a unique organisation. It has served the nation well, despite the enormous challenges it has faced due to terrain and weather. A lack of continuity in its optimal utilisation due to poor direction has seen it almost close down at one stage.
The total strength is about 35,000 personnel with roughly 70,000 CPL at any one time. While most work is executed departmentally, there are provisions for getting work done by contract too. Work has always been under the most challenging conditions, a combination of hot deserts, the highest altitudes and sapping riverine terrain in the NE, where no one else is willing to venture.
This gives BRO personnel long and repeated field tenures.
The BRO TFs also have an operational role. They are grouped with specific formations in active operations to maintain the lines of communication, working closely with the Army Engineers. BRO has contributed in all the wars the Nation has fought. If the road across Zojila had not been opened against time, the guns would not have reached Kargil to surprise the enemy who had anticipated a closed Zojila pass.
Big Vision. Small Budget
While the vision for the BRO was to develop infrastructure in remote areas connecting them to main-stream India, the initial focus in the ’60s was on single-lane roads, even to the State Capitals. Work closer to the Borders was then not a priority. The Army planned the General Staff (GS) Roads with tight budgets. The TFs were ‘work charged’, their pay and allowances coming from the budget for road construction. By 1990 the budget for General Staff (GS) Roads had dropped very low, making BROs force-level untenable. The BRO took a bold decision then to take on Civil Projects and keep the TFs alive.
So BRO constructed the bypass at Varanasi and stretches of National Highways in Maharashtra and Goa, to name a few.
It gave them a feel for working in the plains with bigger machinery. It was only after Kargil that border infrastructure closer to the borders was seen as an inescapable operational necessity.
A package for better operational connectivity along the Borders was approved, with urgent timelines to achieve it.
The TFs were then pulled back to the borders; however, progress was hampered by lack of equipment, manpower and delay in statutory clearances. Targets planned were un-realistic considering these shortages coupled with the severe terrain in the Himalayan region. It requires negotiating the Young Fold Mountains which are the Himalayas, with soft Sedimentary Rock and deep fissures. These become even more unstable when they face the brunt of the monsoons. They experience frequent earthquakes, being along a fault line.
The progress of BRO has often been compared with infrastructure on the Chinese side which, is on the older and very stable Tibetan plateau, now connected by a Rail Network made with firm plans and steady progress since 1950, with a clear intention to connect mainland China with Tibet and beyond.
Along with challenging terrain to work in, single-lane roads initially constructed to State Capitals had to be converted to double-lane by the BRO; clearly, a case of inadequate outlays earlier. This added to the challenge because in the mountains work can only be done by day when the traffic to State Capitals which has grown exponentially cannot stop; makes work on the roads harrowing for commuters and the BRO.
Development along Indian Borders and Abroad
Along with work on our borders, BRO has Project Dantak in Bhutan since 1961 and has carried out works abroad in Myanmar, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In 2011 BRO celebrated 50 yrs in Bhutan which I attended. The then PM HE Jigme Thinley fondly remembered how he travelled to join the school in Darjeeling in BRO trucks.
He said BRO was the ‘best Ambassadors of India to Bhutan’. The road in Afghanistan from Zarang to Delaram giving access to the region from Chabahar in Iran is a strategic road constructed against ‘impossible’ odds as Kabul felt when the work started, because of a combination of extreme desert conditions and even more extreme militants. It was finished six months ahead of schedule, completed to exacting international standards and is today ‘considered the most efficient road to reach Afghanistan’, by a US Strategic Analyst (1).
Similarly, the development all along the Indian Borders has been greatly facilitated by the BRO and the projects are first responders to natural disasters, both floods and earthquakes. BRO also maintain many important roads and passes to forward areas, including the snow clearance. The annual snow clearance operation in Zojila and Rohtang passes are legendry; stories by themselves (Plate 2). All this makes BRO a critical resource in each Border State with the State authorities wanting more BRO deployment.
Development in the Border States has picked up with better roads and bridges made possible with the infusion of better equipment and technology.
The crawler rock-drill, for example, took a while to procure but drilling and blasting on difficult mountain stretch increased from 2-3m a day to 12-15m a day, a five-fold increase. This speeded up road construction along with rocky faces and led to huge savings in overall construction cost.
Present Status of Reforms and Progress in BRO
A few reforms and initiatives taken lately have improved the working in BRO. These very briefly include:
a. Transfer of BRO to MOD in 2015. This has removed the ambiguity in Command and Control, helped manage the budget better and brought in more accountability.
b. Raising ADG HQ EAST (Gauhati) and ADG HQ WEST (Chandigarh). It has led to more delegation of powers with more GREF Officers as ADGs, contributing to the higher technical direction.
c. EPC mode of Contracts for Projects over 100 crore. Allows an optimum mix to execute works along with departmental work.
d. Relaxation of Twin Criteria for down-gradation of equipment.
This will ensure timely turn-over of equipment; better reliability and higher output. This was debated endlessly in the past.
e. Work-charge system removed. Delinking Pay and Allowances makes the project costs more predictable and competitive.
f. Further, better coordination with Army MO Directorate and forward deployment of TFs; timely approval of the AWP and enhancement of Financial Powers have all been positive changes.
These initiatives, coupled with better equipment and the morale-boosting Chinook Helicopter to carry heavy equipment has got the BRO delivering more. Further at the working level, experimenting with new materials and techniques has also helped tackle a variety of tricky problems. Micro-piling, for example, has been a first at high altitude for the crucial Shyok Bridge; special sub-base treatments have helped strengthen roads in remote areas. With such initiatives, fund-utilisation, which was a stagnant 4000 Cr till 2015, is likely to double this year. Now we can see new projects completed faster. The breakthrough of the Chamba tunnel in Uttrakhand and opening of the challenging DBO access road have been in the news lately. The even more recent fourfold increase in maintenance funds is so much better for ‘border roads’, pun intended.
Areas of Concern
The long list of achievements shows the BRO at their best. However, certain areas need serious attention:
Continuity in Reforms: While the reforms mentioned above appear impressive, the changes need to be fully implemented, and sustained with further reform.
There is no functional BRDB today. The BRDB was a high powered committee (see Plate 1), initially chaired by the PM, and later the Raksha Mantri (RM), allowing decisions to be taken across ministries. Post Kargil, BRDB came under the RRM. The Senior Board members - Ministers/ Secretaries, stopped attending meetings thereafter and it has little relevance now. Some alternate enabling mechanism/body is required to support the BRO across ministries, as the BRDB was meant to do. The body could also help maintain the momentum of change. Otherwise, the present impetus will be one more of many pushes in the past, forgotten with the change of personalities. It should never get back to a phase when a single JS could stop work on the D-S-DBO road because he did not agree with the alignment. Hopefully, that is passé now.
Access to Construction Material: Roads cannot be constructed without sand and stone aggregate. This is commonsense. Yet shortages are faced because quarrying capacity in the Border States has not kept pace with the construction planned. Even civilian construction agencies face this shortage. The BRO is affected even more because of tight budget constraints. This should be given priority for smoother progress.
Bridging Capability: This can become the Achilles heel of the BRO. Over-reliance on the Bailey Bridge has haunted the BRO. Bailey bridges are single lane and have a maximum capacity of 12 to 18 Tons for spans over 120 ft (36m). Having graduated to double-lane specifications, single-lane bridges are temporary and bottle-necks leading to under-utilisation of the road. It is a national loss. With the rising aspirations of the locals wanting to speed up their work, these bridges often get overloaded. The collapse of a bridge close to the LAC near Munsiyari in Uttrakhand on June 20, 2020, is a recent example. Border roads have done well to replace it in five days with another Bailey Bridge. Better policing will ensure it is not again overloaded but this is at best a temporary arrangement.
The weakest bridge dictates the capacity of the road. It could be increased to four times more with a double lane Cl 70 R (100 Tons) using a New Generation Bridge such as the ACROW system which has replaced the Bailey Bridge the world over. It has a similar speed of construction. It is also a permanent bridge requiring no replacement. Such a bridge should define minimum standards in BRO. One such 60m span bridge has been launched on NH 107 (Plate 3); the launch was seen by NHAI officials and appreciated.
The BRO is a unique organisation that has served the nation well, despite the enormous challenges it has faced due to terrain and weather and more. A lack of continuity in its optimal utilisation due to poor direction has seen it almost close down at one stage. It was saved by bold leadership and a strong ethos and commitment to serve the nation. It is an organisation with a sound tradition of service and honour, with many receiving decorations (some posthumously) and many more losing their lives in service. Its functioning has now changed for the better. Future employment must only see the curve rise with pragmatic monitoring and support, keeping in mind it is a force-multiplier for the entire nation.
The 592m Atal-Settu at Basholi, a Stayed Cantilever Bridge (Plate 4) now connects Gurdaspur District in Punjab to Doda- Kishtewar, which was once considered remote and the haunt of terrorists; it is another fine example of using the best in technology to connect to remote areas. It is this unique combination of commitment, perseverance and technology that has made BRO the ‘Best Under Extremes’.
(The writer is former DG Border Roads)