Nathu La beckons

Published : Jul 28, 2006 00:00 IST

The mountain pass between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region reopens for trade with China.

AMIT BARUAH recently in Sikkim

INDIA and China have begun taking the "path of the listening ear" - better known as the Nathu La pass, between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The two countries formally inaugurated border trade through this historic route on July 6.

There is no more picturesque trading locale than the 4,200-metre plus pass at Nathu La. The drive from Gangtok, which starts at 1,500 metres is spectacular; there seems to be a stream at every bend and a waterfall every kilometre. Of course, the flow of water brings with it some problems; the route is littered with boulders that could become loose and roll down at any moment .

The reopening of Nathu La has long been in the pipeline. Three years after India and China signed a memo in Beijing on June 23, 2003 the two governments have now put in place the infrastructure required to commence border trade through the pass. Though another memo on the resumption of border trade was signed in 1991, which resumed trade through the Shipki La pass (Himachal Pradesh) and Lipulekh pass (Uttaranchal), Nathu La promises to be different.

Professor Mahendra Lama, who teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says that both the existing routes for border trade are in inhospitable terrain, which makes trade through Nathu La doubly attractive. Lama, who has co-authored a study on Nathu La, believes that this route has the potential of transforming the economy of the region. He estimates trade through the pass at Rs.207 crores ($48 million) by 2007 and Rs.2,266 crores ($527 million) by 2010. This is in line with the increasing trade between India and China projected at $19.23 billion in 2007 and $52.76 billion in 2010.

Initially, trade will be restricted to 29 items from Sikkim and the TAR, but Lama believes that eventually States like West Bengal and Assam will benefit, as will neighbouring Bhutan. Border trade will be permitted from June 1 to September 30, four days a week from 7.30 a.m. to 3.30 a.m.

In an interview to The Hindu, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling spoke hopefully of a possible bus service between Gangtok and Lhasa, a distance of some 590 km. There is also talk of tapping the potential of tourism between the two countries.

The distance from Gangtok to Lhasa is shorter than the existing Kathmandu-Lhasa route. Analysts believe that the existing trade from the TAR to Nepal and into India could well be affected by the potential inherent in the road linkage between India and China through Nathu La.

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran pointed out to this correspondent that the Nathu La link was the "easiest route" between India and Tibet. "Much of the traditional trade between Tibet and India used to take place through this route. Therefore, the re-opening of this route is significant; it would make possible a much larger volume of trade to take place because of the ease of travel than has been possible through the other two trade points [Shipki La and Lipulekh]," he said.

"We also anticipate that while we begin with a fairly limited scope of trade at this point of time, it will be limited to the border zone and it will be limited to a specific number of commodities designated by the two sides, there is certainly the potential to develop this into a border trade crossing through which even normal trade can take place in the future," Shyam Saran said.

Asked if it was the formal recognition of Sikkim as part of India by China that had served as a confidence-building measure to resolve the border issue between the two sides, Saran said that the boundary question was still very much out there "but it is important to note that this [Sikkim] is one sector of the India-China boundary on which there is no dispute between the two sides. The alignment of the border in this sector is accepted by both sides," he pointed out. "It is a good confidence-building measure because the more cross-border trade we have, the more people we have crossing these borders for normal activities or even tourism. This is something which can only improve the atmosphere in which we can tackle some of the more difficult problems," Saran said.

There is little doubt that a forward-looking Chief Minister such as Pawan Kumar Chamling, who has been pushing for the opening of Nathu La since 1994, has made a dent in the political calculations of the Centre, which is often governed by security phobias. For instance, areas such as Sikkim have been the preserve of the security forces. The interests and concerns of the local people have been subservient to the perceived security interests of the state.

According to Chamling, he met the then Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee before his June 2003 visit to China and requested him to take up the case for the opening of the Nathu La pass in Beijing.

Interestingly, though Chamling was at the forefront of efforts to reopen this route, the Sikkim government was not consulted by the Centre. At first the inconveniently located Channgu was designated as the trade mart, but following representations to the Centre it has been shifted to Serethang.

There is little doubt that India and China, which have seen their trade multiply to over $18 billion, have not yet been able to use overland routes for transport given the border dispute between the two sides. However, Nathu La holds the advantage of reducing transport time for both countries.

At the opening of the Serethang trade mart on July 6, Chamling said, "We need to transform steadily the present nascent level of infrastructure to a robust and modern system that could handle a major portion of the bilateral trade between India and China. He added: "Besides the volume, we would also expect the composition of trade to undergo significant changes in the course of [the] next few years. This means we shall have to constantly revise the list of tradable items that would pass through this shortest land route between India and China."

Referring to the first passenger run of the Golmud-Lhasa railway line in Tibet, the Chief Minister felt this added an altogether new dimension to both market access and investment opportunities. "For us in Sikkim this is a major opportunity. We expect that this trade route will change the basic structure of the Sikkimese economy by refocussing on our comparative advantages such as scientific harnessing of natural resources, emphasis on eco-tourism and other service-related activities."

He said, "We also strongly felt that over the years Sikkim could be a major trading zone like Singapore. We are therefore proposing to set up a special economic zone where many of the small and medium enterprises from both India and abroad could be located."

Chamling also took the line that reopening the trade route was a consequence of Sikkim being a peaceful and tranquil State. Despite conflict and violence in its neighbouring States, Sikkim was, in his words, a "citadel of peace and prosperity". He said, "We would like to use the Nathu La trade route as a means of achieving much greater heights. We would like to be a major actor in the building of modern India."

Concerns relating to possible "stayovers" have been taken care off. To ensure that everyone returns home, the Indian and Chinese governments have made it clear that no one will be allowed to stay the night on either side. The 100 traders allowed to cross over with permits must return home by 3.30 p.m. on the four days on which they are allowed to cross.

The Army, while welcoming the reopening of trade, said in a statement that it would continue to man the international boundary, including Nathu La. "The security concerns in carrying out our primary tasks have been adequately addressed in light of the trade activity across the pass," the statement said.

The recently deployed Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) contingent will, however, provide security at the trade mart in Serethang as well as the customs-immigration post at Nathu La. "They [ITBP personnel] are also providing necessary guidance and security for the movement of traders," the Army statement said.

The reopening of the "path of the listening ear" may be limited at present, but must evolve over a period of time. Apart from allowing tourists to cross, trucks should be allowed to ply freely. Needless to say, the list of tradable items also requires additions.

July 6 is only the first step in the path of growing economic linkages between Asian giants India and China through Sikkim and Tibet.

With greater trust and confidence developing as a result of overland contacts, New Delhi and Beijing may find it easier to address their border disputes.

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