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 Hitavada - - THE OPINION PAGE - By DAWA TSHERING (The writher is a Ph.D. Stu­dent at London School of Eco­nom­ics and Pol­i­tics)

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?

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