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A Historic Opportunity on the Frontier


With his experience and background, Chief Minister Khanduri is ideally placed to resolve the boundary issue with China, and unshackle Uttarakhand’s economic, social, and cultural frontiers

By Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, April 15, 2007

As the dust finally settles from the Uttarakhand state assembly polls, the new government is taking its first tentative steps towards fulfilling its election promises. Surprisingly to some, Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri has already signaled that he would shelve any further Tehri-style dams for smaller run-of-the-river hydel projects.

This is a socially and environmentally-wise policy shift insofar as avoiding the protracted struggle over displacement and rehabilitation that would otherwise result especially in the case of the proposed Pancheswar mega dam on the Kali river. Moreover, the decision reflects that the government has learned from the Tehri debacle and is willing to explore alternative methods of generating power. If Khanduri can persuade the centre to drop the plan, it could signal a sea change in development thinking in the country where SEZs have suffered a severe setback through the sad martyrdom of farmers in Nandigram. If the SP loses the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections, the blame will likewise lie with the state government’s sellout to corporate interests as typified by the unseemly relationship between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Reliance’s Anil Ambani.

With a retired General taking up the reigns of power in a Himalayan state, one of most reasonable and interesting of the BJP’s promises to Uttarakhand may also see the light of day. It has been a dream for many living in the border regions and among well-wishers, explorers, and scholars abroad that the Indo-Tibetan frontier once again reopen. Unfortunately, India-China relations have improved at a glacial pace, with all other issues moving forward except for the unresolved border issues. This has been deeply disappointing and injurious to the peoples of the Trans Himalayas who once grew wealthy from the trade between India and Tibet, only to see their livelihoods dwindle and their unique cultures erode over the last two generations.

The BJP’s election platform already included expanding access to Kailash and Lake Mansarovar for pilgrim through Lipu Lekh pass. However, given that Nathu La in Sikkim has just opened this past summer, a strong case can be made for increasing the number of entry points in the Uttarakhand sector including the old pass at Niti La.

For Sikkim, the reopening of Nathu La after 45 years was a long cherished dream and is currently being touted as a cornerstone of a new strategy to revitalize the entire Northeast’s economy. With the largely maritime trade between India and China expected to reach 20 billion USD in 2008, opening this route would not only dramatically expand the economic and cultural horizon of the region, but would also reintegrate trade between Lhasa and Kolkata, Tibet’s traditional port. The border trade was already projected to increase five-fold in before Nathu La was opened, and now the figures may increase again.

On the other hand, the path through Niti La opens up into the barren yet mystical wild table lands of Western Tibet. While expanding access through Lipu Lekh might may more sense and provide greater economic benefits with its proximity to the trading town of Purang at the exact juncture between China, Nepal, and India, Niti La is also a historical pass that was used by Bhotiya traders with their Tibetan counterparts. The Indian and Chinese governments would only have to build a short span of road to connect the two major arteries extending from Haridwar through Niti to the great Xinjiang-Lhasa Highway. While sparsely populated, the supernatural vistas in this region are unsurpassed in the world and would be big draw to tourists who would otherwise have to travel through Beijing, almost a whole continent away.

Moreover, while activating at least two of these passes would bring greater tourism and trade to Uttarakhand’s highest reaches, it would also help reestablish the state’s ancient identity that has been stunted since the border closure. It may even help restore some of the prosperity of medieval times, where the Garhwal rajas grew wealthy on the tax from Tibetan trade routes that eventually drew the British to annex the region. Thus, rather than remain a hinterland, remote region, or even “Top” of India, Uttarakhand alongside Tibet would return to their once hallowed status as the cultural, economic, and metaphysical crossroads of Asia, a fact that could also help Tibet retain its cultural distinctiveness under Chinese hegemony.

Fortunately, Khanduri is at the right place and the right time to seize on the historic opportunity afforded by India and China’s economic expansion and mediate peace between the Asian giants for mutual gain. As an army man and an engineer, it fits well within his purview to negotiate the frontier security protocols, customs posts, and road infrastructure to make the dream of open borders a reality. Ironically, for a party that has prided itself in adopting a hawkish attitude towards defense matters, Khanduri would be following in the footsteps of his former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who laid much of the groundwork for the cross-border thaw with his historic trips to China in 1977 and 2003. Khanduri can build on this legacy by matching Sikkim in the alacrity with which that state has pursued Nathu La.

In fact, Kailash as the centre of the world for Indian Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists alike, is situated like Purang at the junction of Tibet, Uttarakhand, and Western Nepal, making the Uttarakhand government’s interest in international negotiations that much stronger. And who knows whether in 50 years that the centre of political and economic power in the world might not actually shift eastwards to convene in its natural home? Only a short decade ago, such a thought would have been considered pure fantasy, but we are living at a time of dramatic change, so anything is possible. I for one would love to build the foundation of a new world on the ancient banks of Lake Mansarovar.