Border Infrastructure: Modi government driving strategic projects with radical changes In the idyllic Andaman and Nicobar islands - fast emerging as India's strategic and economic arm into the Indian Ocean - a small strip of sea separates Port Blair from the small but upcoming town of Bamboo Flat. On the mainland, up North the Jammu-Akhnoor road has for years been a choking point for traffic heading up to Poonch, including military convoys that service troops along the Line of Control. In the Northeast, trade connections with Myanmar and Bangladesh have for decades been held ransom to shoddy roads and poor infrastructure. A radical new approach is now being adopted to accelerate projects to unclog these bottlenecks, along with work on hundreds of other strategic projects, as the Narendra Modi government sharpens focus on creating infrastructure along India's borders. From the Bharat Mala project (it envisages a road network along India's land boundary, stretching from Gujarat to Mizoram) to Sagar Mala (under which a coastal infrastructure will be set up along the nation's vast shoreline), the government's intention is clear: bring about a road and infra construction boom to help drive trade. While the idea is not new, the approach has been different - a newly created corporation has been empowered to execute projects worth Rs 34,300 crore and has been freed of red tape that traditionally binds government agencies on mega projects. And, execution has been rapid with road projects of nearly 3,200 km activated in the past year. Central to the change has been the creation of the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), which last year took over several projects from the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), mostly in the Northeast but also in a few other strategic areas. Its agenda is simple: create 10,000 km of roads by 2020 and revitalise India's connections with the neighbourhood. The changeover from BRO has been crucial - there are endless tales of roads passing deadlines by several years and construction costs quadrupling during execution. "Efficiency and transparency are the two key areas we are focusing on. Using e-tools for project monitoring and awarding of contracts, and an efficient dispute-resolution mechanism have been (the highlight of) our approach," says NHIDCL Managing Director Anand Kumar. Several critical projects have been fast-tracked, given the focus of the government on creating infrastructure. Consider this: In Port Blair, a detailed study on what could be India's first undersea transportation tunnel is set to commence soon. The idea is to construct a 1.5-kilometre tunnel connecting the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Bamboo Flat. Oversea connection is impossible due to the heavy naval activity in the area. A similar undersea project is also being planned in West Bengal, to connect Sagar Island and Kakdwip with a 3.5 km tunnel. In the Northeast, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari last month, dedicated the final Indian stretch of the Stilwell road, right up to the Myanmar border. The Asian Development Bank is preparing a project report on connecting Manipur's capital Imphal with the town of Moreh near the border. Insiders say doing away with the old is central to the project. The Ministry of Road Transport & Highways has, for example, created a new working group last month that has just one agenda: approve new infrastructure construction technologies for use in India. The committee has been empowered to approve within a month any new, internationally proven, technology for use in India, doing away from the archaic way of clearances that would require years if not decades for approvals by the government. Old challenges still remain, though, the biggest being land acquisition, costs of which have gone through the roof. "While in the past locals would pool resources together and offer us free land to construct roads, the demands in the Northeast for land that is virtually worthless are astounding, in some cases as much as 40 times the market value," an official says. This may be a challenge that would take a lot to resolve. In fact, a lot depends on the ability of state governments to convince landowners on the value a road can bring to a region. Another major focus of the new government agency is building regional connectivity to promote cross-border trade and commerce. The plan is to expand 500 km of roads in the northeastern region to enable transport with other South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation member countries. The connection between Imphal and Moreh is part of these projects. "All we need to connect Tripura to Chittagong is a bridge and a sea port would be available to the Northeast," says Vijay Chhibber, secretary at the roads transport & highways ministry. India is now planning to use international funding through NHIDCL to push through these border connectivity projects. While the Asian Development Bank funds are to be utilised to connect Imphal to Myanmar, funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency is being planned to connect the Assam and Meghalaya borders to Bangladesh. The crucial bridge that could connect Tripura to the Bay of Bengal port of Chittagong in Bangladesh is also being planned through JICA funding. The next two years will be critical to evaluate whether this new approach is working and at stake are India's strategic linkages, and the future of trade in the region.