HIMALAYAN TRADE ROUTE
China knows the importance of a route to the sea, which is why it is investing so heavily in its all-weather ally Pakistan. The Karakoram Highway, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Gwadar Port are all pieces of the puzzle that China is trying
THE Belt and Road Initiative may have many shortcomings, but if adopted intelligently, can usher in a new age of economic prosperity in Eastern India. China has a huge East-West spread and its western part, the Tibet Autonomous Region, while rich in resources, has no access to the sea. Russia’s Siberian treasure house, which is landlocked, will get opened up as the Arctic polar cap melts and the Arctic ocean becomes navigable, but there is no such hope for Tibet.
China knows the importance of a route to the sea, which is why it is investing in Pakistan. The Karakoram Highway, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Gwadar Port are all pieces of the puzzle that China is trying to put together. But the cost is not so much in terms of money as it is in the way that it is forcing China to accept the diktats of terrorists like Masood Azhar.
China knows that it cannot push a trade route through Pakistan without the blessings of the Islamists and it surely knows the price that the Islamists will extract through the Uighur militancy in Chinese province of Xinjiang. China is caught between the need to pander to the devil of Islamist terror and the need of a deep sea port to relieve the claustrophobia in landlocked Tibet. Is there an alternative? That is what India suggested at SCO conference at Qingdao.
The nineteenth century saw the British Empire locked in the Great Game with imperial Russia as both of them jostled for influence across the vast spaces of Central Asia. Lord Curzon decided to send a British mission under Colonel Francis Younghusband to Lhasa in Tibet. They departed from Calcutta in 1903, crossed over from Sikkim to Tibet at Nathu La, and after many battles and adventures, came back, apparently victorious, in 1904. The political outcome of this British mission to Tibet is no more of any relevance in the twenty-first century, but the fact that an army of 3,000 people along with another 5,000-odd camp followers could actually cross the highest mountain barrier twice, should be an eyeopener to anyone who dreams of trans-Himalayan trade routes. Not having access to the vast resources of the British Empire, but seeking to recreate Younghusband’s route and relive his adventure, this author fired up Google Maps to see if there exists a motorable route that could take one from Kolkata to Lhasa. A request for directions obviously returns a negative, and Google admits that it cannot find a route from Kolkata to Lhasa.
There is obviously a motorable road that connects Nathu La to Gangtok in Sikkim, then through National Highway 10 to the highway network in India and eventually to Kolkata about 800km and 20 hours away. The border post of Nathu La abuts the Chumbi Valley, just next to the Doka La. But if we ignore this confrontation, then there exists a motorable road on the Chinese side. This Chinese highway, S204, that currently terminates at Yadong, is a part of the Chinese highway network and connects Yadong to Lhasa, which is about 400km or 10 hours away. Finally, the distance between Nathu La, the last motorable point on the Indian side, and Yadong, the first motorable point on the Chinese side, is, as per Google Maps and “as the crow flies”, a minuscule 15km. These four facts put together means that the 1,200km road from Kolkata to Lhasa is almost ready except for a 15km stretch between Nathu La in Sikkim and Yadong in Tibet!
From this perspective, should we object to China building a road in Doka La, or should we encourage them to do so? For the Chinese, it means an immediate access not just to India but through the Kolkata-Haldia dock system to the main shipping lines that connect Europe and Africa to the Far East. For Bengal and Kolkata, this could become a veritable blood transfusion for the rejuvenation of its ailing and anaemic economic landscape, because Ray, Rabindranath, and rossogolla notwithstanding, maritime trade has always been the lifeblood of Kolkata and South Bengal. Long before Kolkata or even Bengal existed, this part was known for its maritime trade. Both Faxian and Xuanzang (whom our old history books would refer to as FaHien and Hiuen Tsang), who came to India from China during the time of Harshavardhan, have left glowing reports about the great port of Tamralipta, which is identified with modern Tamluk in East Midnapur, on what is now known as the Rupnarayan river. With the siltation of the Rupnarayan, the port shifted to Satgaon, modern Saptagram, located on the Saraswati channel that broke off from the current Hooghly river channel at Tribeni and flowed through Singur – the tragic location of the aborted Tata Nano factory. Singur is perhaps where Bijoya Singha had set sail from to reach, occupy, and rule Sinhala or Sri Lanka. With the closure of the Saraswati channel, the Ganga waters switched back to what is now known as Hooghly river and the British set up their trading post first in Hooghly and when this was devastated by a cyclone, they moved to Calcutta – and the rest, as they say, is history. If and when the governments of India and China agree to rebuild and rejuvenate this ancient trade route, it would be appropriate to honour it with the names of Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim who came to the court of Harshavardhan in the seventh century, and Dipamkara Srijñana, the Buddhist scholar from Bengal whose visit to Tibet in the eleventh century is one of the greatest Buddhist legends of Tibet. To get the ball rolling on the Dipamkara-Xuanzang Transhimalayan Expressway, the first and easiest thing would be to organise a Kolkata-to-Nathu La car and truck rally. This will not only fire up excitement and enthusiasm with all the stakeholders, but will also help us understand the operational challenges involved, at least in the first 800km. Will the different chambers of commerce that are headquartered in Kolkata take up this challenge?