SiliGuri Corridor – The Chicken Neck

Siliguri Corridor Chicken Neck 

 

NATURE OF SILIGURI CORRIDOR
The thin “chicken’s neck” is a territory-connecting the seven Indian North-eastern States to West Bengal and the rest of India also called the “Siliguri Corridor.
The Siliguri Corridor is a cartographic relic of the British decolonization process is a terrifyingly vulnerable artery in India’s Geography.
This piece of land is about 60 km in length but a meagre 21km in width at its narrowest point. With plain terrain not interspersed with any natural or man made obstacles, this patch makes defense a real challenge.
WHY IS IT PRECARIOUS?
The Siliguri Corridor in the northern part of West Bengal that acts as gateway to North-East, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh has been confronting lots of security challenges. Some recent developments, both inside India and in the neighbouring countries, could have far reaching implications for this sensitive border region.
  1. Such threats emanate from various sources, including geographical constraints, China’s upgradation of infrastructure in Tibet and its growing assertiveness in the region, illegal immigration from Bangladesh, cross-border terrorism and Islamic radicalisation in Bangladesh, possible spill-over effects of insurgency and ethnic conflicts in North East especially bordering Assam and transnational crimes. All these factors deserve particular attention because of the gravity of the present situation and its impact on national security, territorial integrity, peace, political stability, economic development, “Act East” policy and subregional cooperation in South Asia.
2.  All land trade between North-East India’s 40 million denizens and the rest of the country traverses the Siliguri owing to the lack of a free-trade agreement between India and Bangladesh.
3. Further reinforcing the strategic precariousness of the region is the fact that there is one railway line that carries rail-based freight across the Siliguri.
4. The harsh topography of the region makes the railway and roads subject to damage from frequent landslides and natural disaster; India’s North-East is known for its record-breaking levels of rainfall.
5. The corridor has a complex and troubled political history. The situation has somewhat improved since the pre-1971 era, when icy relations with China in the north and East Pakistan meant that the region was a constant source of cross-border tension. Since the 1962 war with China, Indian strategists have envisioned a future scenario where “the Chinese may simply bypass and drop Special Forces to choke vulnerable Siliguri Corridor and cut off the Northeast.” China’s diplomacy with Bhutan gives reason to take this possibility seriously;
6. In acknowledgement of its importance to India’s national security, India maintains a heavy patrol presence in the Siliguri region. The Indian Army, the Assam Rifles, the Border Security Force, and the West Bengal Police all patrol the region. India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is known to closely observe Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Bangladeshi activity in the region as well. Among other issues, the Siliguri has been vulnerable to illegal Bangladeshi immigration into India. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has attempted to exploit the Siliguri via Nepal-based insurgents.
7. 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. 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.
8. The Siliguri Corridor is equally important in the context of the “Act East” policy as it provides connectivity to three eastern neighbours of India—Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Except Alipurduar, rest of the North Bengal districts such as Malda, South Dinajpur, North Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Cooch Behar share international borders with Bangladesh. The districts of Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling are contiguous to Bhutan, while Darjeeling is adjacent to Nepal.
9. The Chumbi Valley is flanked on either side by Sikkim on its west and Bhutan on the east. Nepal shares a common border with Sikkim and Chinese and Indian armies are face-to-face along the whole of Arunachal Pradesh.
10.The geostrategic significance of the place for India is that it is able to monitor the Chinese movements in the Chumbi Valley.
11. Disadvantages with respect to China-The Siliguri Corridor is an area so constricted that it is amazing that after the debacle at the hands of the Chinese, Indians have not developed their connectivity to desired extent. China can do to India what India did to Pakistan in 1971 by delinking the former East Pakistan from West Pakistan and helping to create the sovereign independent nation-state of Bangladesh. Other disadvantages that India faces in its defensive posture vis-a-vis China is that many of the infrastructure projects of roads and bridges, belatedly initiated, have been delayed by the difficulties of the terrain and the inadequacy of heavy lift helicopters to deliver civil engineering material to the building sites. Given China’s growing belligerence stoked in large part by the renewed Tibetan unrest within the Tibetan Autonomous Region (and that of the Uighur Muslims in Xingjiang province). By the very nature of its geography the Siliguri Corridor is indefensible with static obstacles and firepower.
12. Chinese tactics-The Chinese tactics will be to use the top of the funnel that is the Valley, as a “forming up place” for the PLA preparatory for an attack into the Siliguri Corridor. One indicator of the Chinese intention will be the strength of the battalions that are permanently posted in the funnel of the Chumbi Valley. What happened  in Doklam Cha is indicative of this Chinese design to control this territory.
13. Problems with its defence and management
Defending it within an internal security concept will not work against a conventional military force of the type the Chinese can deploy from the north of the Chumbi Valley which is well supplied by a network of roads.
The fact that Bhutan lies to the east of the northern limits of the Siliguri corridor creates a dicey situation for India. The use of Bhutanese territory for the defence of the corridor will attract Chinese punitive action against Bhutan.
To ensure Bhutan’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and neutrality, India cannot do anything to jeopardize its very existence.
The emerging Nepal factor is also disturbing for India given that there is talk of not allowing recruitment of Gorkhas for the Indian Army.
CAN CHINA BREAK THE CORRIDOR WITH THE HELP OF BANGLADESH
China is completely in a position to block the corridor. But Chinese are not going to do it as it will not be easy for them to do it. There are multiple reasons for it.
  • There is no comparison between the armies of India and Bangladesh. Any political/military leader, worth his/her salt, in Bangladesh will understand and respect this fact.
  • Bangladesh is also surrounded on all sides by India (land and the Bay of Bengal). Such military adventurism would cost them dearly.
·  China will never pursue such an aggressive operation, despite what many Indians think. China may aggressively pursue border disputes and what it perceives as border disputes, but this is an entirely different matter. This is not disputed land. It belongs to India and is recognised by China as part of India.
·  The 21st Century is not one where aggressive military expansion can just happen unchecked. China surely understands this. Not only will such military adventurism result in just short term gains (it will be impossible to hold the North East permanently) but these small gains will come with huge consequences internationally.
  • Also such an act cannot be contained locally. There will be a war that will spread all across the Indo-Chinese border and may even become much more widespread. Why would China, it self a developing economy, risk something like this?
SOLUTIONS TO THIS GEOGRAPHICAL RIDDLE
  • 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 multi-modal 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 a fillip, 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 north-east 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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