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Routes of promise

Print edition : Jul 18, 2003 T+T-

THE agreement reached between India and China to reopen the historic trade route through Nathu La (pass) in eastern Sikkim has generated jubilation in the State. Welcoming it, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling said: "The decision has fulfilled one of Sikkim's long-standing demands. A number of advantages would flow out of the decision to reopen the trade route through Sikkim. As far as Sikkim is concerned, the reopening of the trade route, said to be a branch of the ancient Silk Route, will give a major boost to tourism and increase commercial and export-oriented activities in the region. Sikkim would celebrate the opening of the 14,000-ft Nathu La on a grand scale." Meanwhile, a press release from the Sikkim government said: "China's decision to recognise Sikkim implicitly as a part of India will not only remove a long-standing irritant in bilateral relations, but also dramatically raise the level of comfort in New Delhi about intensified relations with Beijing."

While the mood is joyous in Gangtok, it is gloomy in Kalimpong in West Bengal, where traders have for long been urging the Central government and the West Bengal government to initiate talks with China to reopen a route to Tibet via Jelep La in Kalimpong, a sub-division in Darjeeling district. Jelep La was used by Indian and Tibetan traders for ages to transport wool, musk, yak tails, skins, spices, silk and cotton textiles - until it was closed following the 1962 India-China war. What was once largely no more than a mule track is now a 575 km-long motorable road running from Kalimpong to Lhasa. The road beyond Jelep La at the India-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction passes through Chumbi Valley via Yatung in Tibet, once a busy trade centre. From there it runs almost in a straight line to Lhasa, touching Phari and Gyantse, a walled area on the high hills that houses one of Tibet's largest Buddhist monasteries. Until 1959, when China came to control Tibet and the Dalai Lama took shelter in India, India's Posts and Telegraphs Department (as it was named and structured then) had offices right up to Gyantse. Many Indians, mostly Kalimpong-based members of the Marwari community trading in wool and silk, maintained permanent establishments in the region. Old documents in the Kalimpong sub-divisional office show that trade ties between India and Tibet were so close that three Kalimpong-based private banks - Kuber Bank, Das Bank and a third bank that belonged to Rai Bahadur Ramchandra Mintry - operated in Tibet till the early 1950s.

With political tension between India and China easing, diplomats of both the countries feel that reopening all the traditional trade routes along India and China's Tibet Autonomous Region will improve relations further. With this purpose, India approached China in 1990 to revive the traditional border trade routes. An accord was signed on July 1, 1992, and within a month an old Indo-Tibetan trade route was reopened. This route, running from Dharachula in Pithoragarh district of Uttar Pradesh to Taklakot in Purang district of Tibet, passes through the 5,200-metre Lipu Lekh pass at the India-Tibet-Nepal trijunction. Initially the Defence Ministry raised objections on tactical grounds, but the Indian government flashed a green signal in pursuit of the larger diplomatic objective of opening up to China. In early 1993, another route, running from Joshimath to Tibet through Dharma Pass via Manasarovar, was reopened.

The route through Kalimpong, said to be the most convenient one, remains closed. On March 1, 1993, West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu wrote to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, suggesting the reopening of the Kalimpong-Lhasa route via Jelep La. The Chief Minister wrote: "I understand that very recently a team from the External Affairs Ministry visited Beijing where the modalities for border trade between India and China were formalised. The State government is extremely happy that once again trade between the two countries is going to be opened. However, it appears that only Nathu La in Sikkim will be utilised for this purpose. If the historical perspective under which trade between Tibet and India flourished in the pre-1962 period is considered, it may be noted that Kalimpong, a sub-divisional headquarters of Darjeeling district of West Bengal, was the centre. The entry point for the imports and exports of goods and commodities was Jelep La, which was connected to Kalimpong. Along with Nathu La in Sikkim, Jelep La in West Bengal also [ought to] be considered as a point through which trade between the two countries can be conducted. I will be happy if the route through Jelep La is opened again. This will immensely benefit not only the people of Kalimpong but also the entire hill population of Darjeeling district and provide an impetus to economic activity."

Soon after the trade route from Pithoragarh and Taklakot via Lipu Lekh pass was reopened in July 1992, a Kalimpong-based businessman, D.C. Khati, went to the Tibet Autonomous Region of China by this route to study the export-import potential in the two countries. He later said that in order to reach Taklakot from Dharachula in India through the Lipu Lekh pass, he had to walk about 100 km from Gunji village in Uttar Pradesh. There is a motorable road between Dharachula and Gunji, but from Gunji one has to follow a narrow mule track through uninhabited mountain terrain. The risky trek, along a route at heights ranging from 4,500 m to 5,200 m and facing high winds at Lipu Lekh, will take a physically fit person at least 10 days. Goods for trade had to be carried by porters, as well as mules and jubboos, which are male yaks. The transport cost was high. Khati, who took with him samples of traditional items of export such as readymade garments, tea, coffee and biscuits, said: "What I wanted to know was what kind of materials we should take from India and what we could import from the other side of the border. In Tibet there is a ready export market of things like building materials, agro-machinery, bicycles, motorcycles and cars."

Compared to the Pithoragarh-Taklakot route, the routes passing through Nathu La in Sikkim and Jelep La in Kalimpong are convenient ones. Since there are motorable roads both from Gangtok and Kalimpong on the Indian side and well-maintained roads on the other side of the border, any product or goods including heavy items could be transported to Lhasa in two days. Nathu La is 50 km from Gangtok and is connected by a wide road that is maintained by the Indian Army. The distance between Kalimpong and Jelep La is not more than 70 km.

The reopening of trade routes along the India-China border will help make Sikkim a dry port, and Siliguri in northern Bengal a major trade centre. "The reopening of the border post will open up markets on both sides," said Indian Chamber of Commerce secretary-general Nazeeb Arif. "It will cost Beijing much less to transport goods from its eastern and southern shores to Tibet through the Bay of Bengal, Kolkata and northern Bengal.'' At present, Chinese goods reach the Tibet Autonomous Region through the mountainous Beijing-Lhasa stretch, which makes for a gruelling trip. Should the old Silk Route be reopened, the Kolkata-Lhasa trade link can be activated, spurring economic activity across the eastern hinterland. Trading across the Silk Route is likely to shorten distances and cut transportation costs sharply.

A study sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said that after the reopening of the trade route through Nathu La, trade with countries of South Asia and South-East Asia was expected to improve the region's economy, with the trade turnover increasing by at least five times. "If China is taken into consideration, our economy may witness a 10-fold increase," said Nazeeb Arif.

The Chairman of the Kolkata Port Trust, A K Chanda, said: "The reopening of the Kolkata-Lhasa route will be a dream come true. An upsurge in traffic levels in the east will have a positive impact on not only the Kolkata Port Trust's twin-dock systems, but across other east Indian ports as the trade volumes are bound to be huge."