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With the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) far behind schedule in constructing 73 approved “Indo-China Border Roads” along the northern borders, the defence ministry on Sunday empowered BRO officials with enhanced financial powers. The Chief Engineers, key officials who head BRO projects spread across the border states – with project names like Himank (Ladakh), Vartak (Arunachal Pradesh) and Beacon (Kashmir) – will now enjoy enhanced financial powers that are 5-10 times more than their earlier financial limits. The defence ministry states this will “avoid delays on account of references between the Chief Engineer and HQ DGBR (Headquarters, Director General Border Roads) and also between HQ DGBR and the Ministry.” BRO’s road building has lagged, while China has constructed a wide-spread network of roads that allow their troops to reach the border quickly on vehicles. In contrast, Indian foot patrols must march long distances to reach the same areas. With only 27 roads completed of the 73 “strategic roads” approved for the Sino-Indian border, the defence minister assured Parliament on July 28 that the balance roads would be completed by December 2022. The earlier financial powers permitted a Chief Engineer to approval “departmental works” up to Rs 10 crore, and the ADGBR (Assistant Director General Border Roads) up to Rs 20 crore.
All “contractual works” had to be referred to the DGBR, who could sanction expenditure only up to Rs 50 crore.Enhancing financial powers at all levels, the defence ministry “has now approved that for both departmental and contractual mode of execution, a Chief Engineer of BRO can accord administrative approval up to Rs 50 crore, ADGBR upto Rs 75 crore and DGBR up to Rs 100 crore. For regular contracting, a Chief Engineer’s powers have been enhanced tenfold from Rs 10 crore to Rs 100 crore; the ADGBR’s powers fifteen-fold from Rs 20 crore to Rs 300 crore; and the DGBR’s powers for contracts above Rs 300 crore. “With this delegation, the entire tendering process including acceptance of bids would be completed at the level of Chief Engineer/ADGBR for a majority of the contracts”, stated the defence ministry. In a useful departure from the earlier policy, the DGBR has been granted full powers to determine the usage norms and life span of construction equipment, which was hitherto done by the defence ministry. For example, if the DGBR assesses that a bulldozer operating at 16,000 feet altitude in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector would have a reduced life span compared to one operating at 11,000 feet near Leh, he is now empowered to introduce the new norm. In 2015, the BRO was transferred from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways to the defence ministry to improve functioning. On May 6, 2013, the defence minister told parliament that the Cabinet had approved raising the BRO’s manpower strength to 42,646 personnel. Despite attempts at reform, the BRO remains a divided organisation, with friction between BRO cadre officers, and army officers posted on deputation. The BRO cadre resents a large number of top executive and command positions going to the army.