New Delhi: An ambitious Union government plan to build a railway line from Udhampur to Baramula, connecting Jammu and Srinagar for the first time, could be going nowhere anytime soon.
Posters have begun to appear all over the Kashmir valley threatening engineers and labourers working on the Rs11,000 crore project, which will provide unprecedented connectivity between Kashmir and the rest of the country, with fatal consequences if they did not abandon the project.
“Employees have also got many threat calls and demands for money were also made,” says a railway official who does not want to be named.
Such challenges to major infrastructure projects aren’t confined to the troubled state. In many North-Eastern states, overt opposition and threats to projects involving roads, oil and gas production are adding considerable delays and costs to projects that are often critical for the country as well as those regions. While seemingly uncoordinated, these mounting terror threats are beginning to pose a serious challenges to the completion of around Rs20,000 crore investments that have been initiated in these regions.
A Rs3,800 crore project in Assam sponsored by Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd to replace ageing hydrocarbon exploration and production infrastructure is similarly stuck.
Consultants appointed for the project, Texas-based engineering firm KBR Inc., have been holed up in ONGC’s residential complex because of the instability in the areas where the project’s assets are located.
“The service companies are afraid and the personnel from KBR are in our residential complexes, as they are afraid to venture out fearing the insurgents. We even have to placate their employers that things are normal here. We have to work with these problems,” says a senior ONGC executive, who did not wish to be identified.
In Kashmir, the poster campaign and the threatening phone calls have taken a toll, with labourers and employees threatening to quit, forcing the authorities to seek security cover. “We have asked for additional security from the Jammu & Kashmir state government,” confirmed northern railways general manager Shriprakash, who doesn’t use a last name. Terror outfits trying to target the infrastructure projects in J&K include Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hizbul-Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.
Meanwhile, highway projects in Assam too are similarly being held to ransom. Assam has been witness to endemic violence orchestrated by insurgent outfits, such as the United Liberation Front of Assam, the Muslim Liberation Tigers of Assam, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the Bodo Liberation Tigers.
ONGC has had trouble getting private contractors for the project. It was after much persuasion that it was able to convince KBR, a former Halliburton arm, to team up.
“Our operations do get affected because of such insurgency problems, but no project has stalled till date,” says R.S. Sharma, ONGC chairman and managing director.
But the terrorist threats are forcing relevant authorities to resort to unorthodox methods.
National Highways Authority of India has recently agreed to a proposal from the Assam government to pay salaries for an “army” of around 1,000 ex-servicemen who would be recruited to protect the engineers and labourers working on highway projects in the state.
The authority has awarded works for 700km and is worried that unless the labourers and engineers feel secure, work may suffer. In addition, it also plans to spend around Rs5,000 crore under the special accelerated road development programme for the North-Eastern region. “We are willing to pay for their (workers’) security as we have much at stake in the state,” says Nirmaljit Singh, a member of the authority’s board.
Interestingly, while public sector projects are struggling to cope with the insurgency problem, private sector initiatives in the same region seem to proceed without much of a hitch. Some experts believe that this is largely due to the public sector being seen as a proxy for the government.
According to industry lobby group CII’s Jammu and Kashmir state council chairman Sanjay Suri: “Private companies are much better integrated with the local economy and provide more employment than the PSUs in far-flung areas such as Kashmir.”
For example, Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group’s Reliance Infocom Ltd operates one of the largest telecom networks in the North-East without any apparent problems. A company spokesman declined to comment. However, a security consultant who advises multinationals on setting up operations in such disturbed areas, said that private companies, unlike their PSU counterparts, are better as they have the freedom to negotiate with the terrorist groups.
“In the private sector, the top management can take decisions that those in the public sector cannot,” says the consultant who hinted that pay-offs were a way of life for companies who had to set up business in naxalite or terrorism -affected areas.
The PSUs, bound by the Central Vigilance Commission guidelines, do not enjoy the liberty of dealing with such groups, he added. Ajai Sahni, an expert on internal security and executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, however, said no public or private sector project can proceed in the affected areas without paying off the terrorist groups.
“Project costs now routinely factor in 10-20% payments to the insurgents,” he said. “And it’s not just the private companies that are forced to buy peace. Public sector units operate through contractors who, in turn, negotiate with the terrorist outfits. In Manipur, the government has admitted on record that it has been deducting employees’ salaries to pay off extremists.” Sahni said there was no way to stop extortion without eliminating insurgency. “Extortion is inextricably linked to the extremist outfit’s capability to inflict violence,” he said.
In Tripura, for instance, he noted, extortion had gone down dramatically after concerted operation by the armed forces, which brought down the number of killings from nearly 400 a year to a couple of dozen in a year.
P.R. Chari, former bureaucrat and research professor at think tank Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, said: “The disturbing part is that the number of affected districts is only going up and the extremist groups are extending their reach and the range of their targets.” Chari said the targeting of public sector units, the proposed special economic zones and the communications networks springs from the strategy of these groups to assert their relevance and ensure greater isolation from the country’s mainstream. “This is a disturbing trend at a time when the Centre is trying to drum up euphoria over the 9% -plus economic growth.”
Many public sector units have embarked on community projects, such as schools and hospitals, and basic infrastructure such as drinking water and roads, to win local support for their other projects. “The only way to address the people is to involve the local people as stakeholders,” says a senior National Hydroelectric Power Corp. executive who did not wish to be named. “Such type of problems is always there in the big projects. Even we faced problems in North-East. At the end of the day, your people have to work there.”
Ashish Sharma also contributed to this story.