Kalidasa wrote that the waters of Lake Mansarovar are “like pearls” and that to drink them erases “the sins of a hundred lifetimes”. The first batch of yatris to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in China, via one of the oldest pilgrimage and trade routes through the Nathu La pass in Sikkim, was flagged off from Gangtok on June 18 against the backdrop of a new era of cooperation between India and China. This historic trade route between Tibet and Sikkim was reopened after 44 years in 2006. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping moved on this far-reaching pilgrimage project in New Delhi in September 2014.
For decades, pilgrimage by Indians to Kailash-Mansarovar mainly took place either through the Nepal-China border town of Khasa (Tatopani) or by a difficult trek through the Sino-Indian pass from Taklakot on the Uttarakhand border. The Nathu La route reduces both physical hardship and journey time. The maiden pilgrimage will reach Mansarovar, at an altitude of 15,157 feet, on June 26. It includes acclimatisation, nature watch, rest and recreation over an approximately 1,650 km-long journey. Nathu La will become one of the most magnificent eco-tourism routes, making deep inroads into biodiversity hotspots and offering a glimpse of glaciers and water towers. The initiative finally reconnects the cultural heritage of two civilisations that have now started working together towards rebuilding an Asian confluence.
Despite high expectations, trading activities on this route have remained dismal. There were no imports from the Chinese side in 2010-11 (as against Rs10.2 million in 2014), while Indian exports have incrementally increased, reaching above Rs160 million in 2014. These consist of tea, blankets, clothes and textiles, snuff, utensils, copper items, vegetable oil, canned food, jute sacks, tobacco, etc. Imports consist mainly of yak tail, sheep wool, quilt, blankets, readymade garments, borex powder, China clay, salt and carpets. The 2005 Nathu La Trade Study Team Report projected that with certain trade facilitation measures, India-China border trade through Nathu La would reach $2.84 billion by 2015. The negligible trade volume is mostly attributed to restrictions on tradeable items, poor road conditions, inadequate infrastructure and the lukewarm attitude of policymakers. The report also recommended the integration of trade with tourism, as well as open tourism between India and China by 2015.
Nevertheless, tourists make a beeline to watch how trade actually takes place between India and China. The Nathu La pass itself has become a major tourist spot, with hundreds of people visiting the border and shaking hands with Chinese soldiers. China has already extended its railway route from Lhasa to Xigatse and is likely to extend it to Nathu La by 2020. India is also working to build a two-lane highway up to Nathu La and a railway line to Rangpo. Against this backdrop, it would be naïve to expect traditional items like yak tail and incense sticks to dominate trade through Nathu La.
One cannot expect limited interaction among border communities, either. That was the assumption for border trade between Nepal and Tibet at Khasa and India and Myanmar at Moreh (Manipur). However, the actual volume, composition and direction of trade and cross-border movement of people have far surpassed local communities and products. They do not reflect the “border trade” phenomenon. Given the monsoonal vulnerability of the 50.6 km road between Gangtok and Nathu La, and the pivotal role played by Kalimpong, which was the focal point of all trading activities in the eastern Himalayas till 1962, the most viable option would be reopening the Jelep La trade route that connects north Bengal and the Northeast with various Chinese trading centres. Himalayan regions have a long history of trade routes. In most cases, pilgrimage triggered their opening. People used the infrastructure created by trade routes for easier access to pilgrimage sites. They consolidated and integrated the region, the borderlands even more.
The improvement in Sino-Indian relations has revived traditional forms of exchange and interconnection, with a modern orientation. This may not only lead to renewed and modern forms of trade, investment, tourism and pilgrimage, but also transform the matrices of people-to-people contact.
In the context of the emerging discourse on the shift from “borders” to “borderlands” and the “new regionalism”, the renegotiation and reopening of these traditional trade routes have acquired a huge transborder dimension, linking institutions, policies for cooperation, connectivity, and socio-commercial exchanges. China’s announcement of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” adds a new direction and fresh impetus to initiatives in the borderlands. It could even take India and China closer to deeper collaboration.
The writer, a professor at JNU, headed the team to prepare the Nathu La Trade Route Reopening Report that facilitated the relaunch of the trade route in 2006.