DELHI // The highest fatality rate in the Indian army is not among troops stationed along the de facto border with its arch-rival Pakistan, but among its high-altitude road building unit. The Border Roads Organisation has lost 3,211 men - averaging almost one a day - in the last decade. The unsung heroes of the Indian army, the men of the "BRO" as the organisation is known here, are tasked with construction and maintenance of roads along the country's 6,900km border with Pakistan, China and Burma.
Their lives are often gruelling. In the Himalayas, where most of the force is deployed, the men have to endure months of extreme cold and loneliness. Avalanches and falling rocks are a daily worry and a lack of safety equipment and training means many men simply fall to their deaths. Others go mad from the stress, along with the unhappiness at being cut off from their families for so long. Few manage more than three years of service.
But, as India pushes to upgrade its infrastructure in the border states, it will be the men of BRO who spearhead that drive. Many wonder whether it is up to the task. For years now the BRO has been understaffed by an estimated 15 per cent, and unable to find recruits for what is a highly dangerous but under-appreciated job. It also lacks much of the equipment it requires, including heavy-lifting helicopters, which it must loan from other units in the army.
Many of its projects also grind to a halt because of the slothful nature of Indian bureaucracy or inter-ministerial rivalries. A project to build a 2,678km road in Arunachal announced last January is already behind schedule because the environment ministry will not grant approval and the local government will not issue BRO workers with entry permits. Meanwhile on the Chinese side of the border, work continues apace.
"The Chinese are so fast, so determined," says Amit Kumar of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation "They say this project will be finished by such a time and it is!" firstname.lastname@example.org