Monday, August 20, 2007

Nathula trade moves, but slowly, across Himalayas

Nathula,Sikkim : Tibetan men coming to trade here wear a dozen hats, an item not on the approved list of bilateral border trade between India and China.
If they are lucky, on a clear day that attracts a crowd of traders and tourists, they return bareheaded.
But the weather is often hostile on this ancient Silk Route at Nathu La, at 4,210 metre, 10 km from here, which reopened in July last year after 43 years.
The Tibetan hat, a popular item with Sikkimese buyers, goes for Rs.80 here. But it sells for Rs.350 at Gangtok, Sikkim's capital, barely 44 km away.
The tin shed market complex here attracts Lotsang Lhamu, a Sikkimese businesswoman. She has crossed over to the Tibetan side, to Shingaz, with 20 kg bags of non-Basmati rice. The cost works out to Rs.590; she sells it for Rs.800.
Aluminium utensils, stainless steel glasses and bowls, textiles, readymade clothes and bicycles are among the other items she sells.
Every Monday to Thursday, between April and September, groups of Indian and Tibetan traders cross the border to trade.
The Tibetan-Chinese have shown greater enthusiasm. Statistics show that they come in larger numbers, some of them arriving with their goods in vehicles with Lhasa number plates and turning the boot into a mobile shop.
Slowly the mule-track is turning into a border trade hub. The communication is in Tibetan and broken Hindi.
A total of 696 Indians visited the Tibetan side and 1,253 Chinese-Tibetans visited the Sherathang Trade Mart between July and September last year. India 'imported' goods worth Rs.10,83,150 and 'exported' besides rice, atta, maida, tea, clothes, snuff and other items, all worth Rs.8,87,285.
For geo-strategic reasons, India has been cautious and slow, while the Chinese, Indian officials here say, want this border trade to be converted into transit trade with no limits. "They want to dump their goods," said an official in Gangtok.
Sikkim, the Himalayan Indian state, sees this as a major opportunity to reach out to the world and is pressing for trade expansion.
Even as it exercises caution, the government of India has accepted Sikkim's proposal to raise the limit of exportable items per consignment per trader from Rs.25,000 to Rs.100,000.
The list of items, actually a carry-forward of what existed in 1962, when the China-Indian conflict ended the border trade, is "obsolete", a Sikkim Government official says.
Sikkim has prepared a revised list of items on the basis of their demand in Tibet and logistic advantages. It includes alcoholic beverages, tea, engineering hardware, cement, cardamom, ginger, textiles and petrol and diesel. It is awaiting clearance from the Cabinet Committee of the government of India.
The Indian Army guarding the border has vacated a portion to allow motorable road that facilitates the traders' movement, leaving its management to the police. "We look at it as a very positive development," says Major General Vijay Singh Lalotra, general-officer-commanding Mountain Division.
But infrastructure on the Indian side needs improving. While the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) would be working on the existing National Highway 31A from Gangtok to Natu La, Rites India Limited, entrusted with preparation of a master plan, has envisaged the construction of a check post, a cafeteria/hotel and a parking yard, estimated to cost Rs.300 million.
This would be complete only by 2010. Sikkim is gung-ho about it. But Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling told a Chinese delegation recently that the key remained with New Delhi and Beijing. Improvement in overall ties, already thawed, would determine the pace of border trade.
(Mahendra Ved can be contacted at