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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A stitch in time


Of 503 stretches on the borders planned to be completed by 2022, only 17 have so far reached fruition
MAYANK SINGH | Issue Dated: December 8, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : BRO | BRDB | Indo-China | GREF | CCS | Army |

At a time when China is constantly upgrading its border infrastructure, building shining fair weather roads across the Line of Actual Control (LoAC), what is India doing? Its premier defence road construction agency, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is mired in litigation and a constant battle of attrition between its civil and military components, sapping its efficiency and output in a critical area of the country’s defences.


India had set up the Border Roads Development Board (BRDB) on March 14, 1960, at the height of Indo-China tensions which finally led to the 1962 border skirmish.


Its mandate was to expedite road construction work in the North East and states bordering neighbouring countries in remote and far flung areas to provide better connectivity. To execute the projects, a self-sufficient departmental road construction work force, the General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF)- popularly known as the BRO was raised on June 16, 1960.


The big question since then has been a lack of clarity on the rules that govern the organization. Officers of the GREF say that while they are governed by central civil service (CCS) rules, they are also answerable to certain military laws.


While the service terms and conditions of GREF employees are governed under the CCA (CCS) Rules, 1965, for limited purposes of discipline GREF employees are also subject to certain provisions of the Army Act, 1950 under Section 4(1) and 4(4) under Article 33 of the Constitution of India so that they can discharge their duty with strict discipline. Out of BRO’s authorised strength of 42,646, 3000 come from army.


The fundamental right of GREF employees to form associations, demonstration and strike against exploitation in service and interaction with press stand restricted - just as they are restricted for other defence forces. Says a senior GREF officer: “While we stay in the same difficult conditions and face the same problems as army personnel, we don’t get similar allowances and facilities.”


There are sticking issues like separated family accommodation (SFA) and allowances. Army officers posted in remote and tough conditions are given SFAs along with various allowances, but GREF officers in similar situations have to make do with their own arrangements. Undeniably, working conditions in far flung areas are extremely difficult for any personnel, uniformed or not. Officials say that to keep the motivation from flagging, there have to be ways and means to evolve a mechanism so that there is a sense of parity keeping in mind the very difficult job at hand.


In May 2013, a Rajya Sabha committee on subordinate legislation under the chairmanship of MP Maya Singh was formed which noted that the Sixth Central Pay Commission had recommended framing of GREF Rules; despite the recommendation, no such rule had been framed so far.


The key question is here is this: while restructuring of the BRO was approved in 2006, the plan continues to be put in the cold storage. Discontent has since been brewing; at one point of time it had led to the mass resignations by GREF officers. Protests have reached an alarming level with 150 petitions filed before the ministry of defence (MoD) by GREF engineers.


The BRO is run by close to 1,500 officers, the bulk of which are from the GREF that is actually considered a civilian force by many in the military. Cadre review of officers and subordinates has not been done for 23 years despite clear guidelines to conduct the exercise once every five years.


In August this year, the MoD found out that of the 503 stretches on the borders planned to be completed by 2022, only 17 had reached fruition. Work is underway on just 50 of the total number. Delays and manifold cost overruns can now be expected.


While the reason attributed for never-ending delays includes BRO’s capacity to undertake work of such proportions, what has added to the problems are withheld environment clearances which have taken their toll in the North and North-East. Add to it the lack of modern equipment and BRO’s outdated financial norms in terms of rates of construction labour, wages and snow clearance maintenance grants. For instance, helicopter support in lifting equipments and material is a serious worry. Crucially, only 17 of the 73 roads along the Chinese frontier have been completed. The remaining projects continue to get delayed.


The Rajya Sabha Committee recommended that MoD should make all efforts to draft the GREF Act as soon as possible. The concerned subordinate legislation should also be framed accordingly within a time frame, it recommended, which would clear the ambiguity regarding service rules presently imposed on civilian employees of GREF/BRO and would go a long way in soothing tempers.


The committee also noted that apart from the discrepancy in salaries, GREF employees were subject to Army Act, 1950, but in reality are neither considered at par with the army nor the civilian officers. So, the golden principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ should be followed.


Highlighting discrepancies in posting, promotions and appointments, the committee noted that vacancies earmarked for GREF employees are filled by army personnel. While army personnel are getting regular promotions, GREF subordinates are left out in the cold.


Interestingly, recommendations of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Pay Commission are yet to be implemented in BRO, a move that would have taken care of contentious issues. In addition, the vacancies which were created after the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) made all the posts in BRO permanent, it was decided that the vacancies would be filled up in a three-year time span. However, till date the vacancies remained to be filled up. This has lead to a situation where the BRO is short of critical manpower for execution of many sensitive roads which are not only important for strategic considerations but are necessary for socio-economic development of remote and far flung areas and to connecting them to the Indian mainline.


According to sources, the Rajya Sabha Committee on subordinate legislation has asked for an Action Taken Report (ATR). The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has scheduled a meeting this week `To improve the functioning of BRO’.


Alarm bells are now ringing: with a large number of GREF officers resigning and approaching civil courts for justice, the government has no choice now but to act. The Indian government is putting into place infrastructure on the Indo-China border but you need men to man it

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017