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Bridging the gap: Connecting Sikkim to Tibet will be win-win for both India and China

Commerce, Culture and Connectivity are the three pillars of India’s robust engagement with South-East Asia and good road connectivity
is one crucial requisite for such close interface.
Jun 14, 2018
 
By Sudip Bhattacharyya
 
India’s ‘Act East' policy was born out of India’s strategic imperatives to establish its
strategic footprints in South-East Asia. Commerce, Culture and Connectivity are the
three pillars of India’s robust engagement with this region and good road connectivity
is one crucial requisite for such close interface.
 
In pursuance of that, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Indian and
Chinese foreign ministries was signed for the opening of a new route to the
Kailash Mansarover for the pilgrims who have been using the Lipulekh pass in
Uttarkhand. This passage starts from the Nathu La pass in Sikkim and passing
through the city of Sahigatse in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
 
The Silk Route in Sikkim is an offshoot of an ancient trade route which came from
Lhasa, crossing Chumbi Valley and passed through Nathu La Pass and finally took
the port of Tamralipta (present Tamluk in West Bengal). Most popularly termed as
the South West Silk Route, this is one of the most ancient parts of the route which
connected the Yunnan province of China to Tibet and finally to India and as far as
Afghanistan. Interestingly, silk was not then the most treasured item traded in this
part of the route; it was horses and tea.
 
There were further offshoots of this route from Lhasa and Lanzhou which crossed
the eastern Himalayas and reached Sikkim at different high altitudes like Jelep La and Dhonka La. All these routes converged it eastern
Sikkim and finally led to the plains of Bengal from where they bifurcated to various
sea ports and trade centres on coastal Bay of Bengal like Tamluk in India and Wari-
Bateshwar, Bhitagarh, Mahasthangarh, Bikrampur and Sonargaon in present
Bangladesh.
 
A section of the South West Silk Route crossed Lhasa and entered India through
Nathu La from China whereas another section of the route crossed Myanmar and
entered India through Manipur. Manipur shares about 355 km border with Myanmar.
It is prospectively the most economically viable border in the North-east. It also has
historical and cultural links with Myanmar through Buddhism. India plans
to improve the infrastructure in Manipur and turn the border town of Moreh into a smart city. The trade
route between Moreh in Manipur and Tamu in Myanmar is a great opportunity for
improvement of trade links with Myanmar. The completion of the Tamu-Kalewa-
Kalemyo sector of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is poised to create
a new dynamic in India’s multi-faceted ties with the region. With the Indian
government focusing with renewed vigour on spurring the economic uplift of India’s
north-eastern states, the gateway to ASEAN, enhanced connectivity promises to
unleash a new prosperity in this region.
 
The other part of South West Silk Route through Nathu La was mostly operated by
the Lhasa Newars for the last 400 years. The Lhasa Newars were influential
expatriate traders from Kathmandu Valley who traded in Tibet for centuries. They
traded between Tibet, Nepal and Gangetic plains of eastern India over the Silk Road
and were a major cultural and economic bridge between Central Asia and South
Asia. The Lhasa Newars rode their caravans over the Nathu La and Jelep La passes
which were approached from Kalimpong in West Bengal and Gangtok in Sikkim. The
Lhasa Newar trading ended after Nathu La was shut down after the Sino-Indian War in
1962.
 
As given in a recent article in Swarajya magazine (Kolkata-Lhasa Highway: A Road To Prosperity For
Both India And China by Prithwis Mukerjee, Jun 01, 2018), there should be 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 800 km
and 20 hours away. The border post of Nathu La abuts the Chumbi Valley, just
next to the Doklam plateau of Tibet, where the Indian Army has been in
confrontation with the Chinese army over the construction of a motorable road. Then
there exists a motorable road on the Chinese side and 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 400 km 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 15 km. These facts put together means that the 1,200 km
road from Kolkata to Lhasa is almost ready, except for a 15 km to 30 km stretch
between Nathu La in Sikkim and Yadong in Tibet.
 
The benefits of such a highway are manifold. 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 their rejuvenation. Given
the lack of agricultural land in Tibet, there may be a market for the reverse flow of
food products and fresh vegetables, and vegetable farmers in Bengal and Bihar may
see a huge new market opening up through Nathu La.
 
(The author is a writer on strategic affairs. He can be contacted at bhattacharyya.s@gmail.com)
 

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