Reflections on Lipu-lekh Pass

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 28 Oct 2014

As this writer works on his long delayed work on the role of the trans-Himalayan Land route trade  through the western Himalayan passes on the economic development of Uttarakhand his attention gets focussed on the travails which the traders of the Byanse-Chaudans region of Pithoragarh continue to endure. According to the latest news the last batch of the Indian traders have started packing up for their return journey and on the last count their unsold goods worth about Rs 30 lakhs has to be transported back home. The last batch will commence its return journey from the Taklakot market and they are expected to negotiate the Lipu-lekh by the 31st October ( Amar Ujala, 26th Oct).                                                                                                                                                                  

Fulcrum of British Kumaon Economic Revival

To the day it is exactly 200 years that a west-ward moving East India Company wrested present day  Uttarakhand from the Gorkhas in 1815 AD and made them pack up their ruinous administration which stretched nearly a quarter century of local mis-rule. Through the Treaty of Sigauli the only Himalayan Empire known to history ( 1769 -1815 ), the Gorkha Empire,  was made to retreat east of the river Kali and the wrested territories since then have had a most chequered history. That, however, is another story.

The ruinous territories that got wrested, later divided between the British Kumaon and the Native Tehri Raj, presented a challenge which was quite unique to the early Company administrators. Imagine a territory, wrested since 1791, controlled from a remotely seated feudal power, from Kathmandu, whose sole line of communication negotiated several mighty Himalayan rivers, without bridges, mountain passes, thick jungles full of wild animals and ethnic groups who lived in abject poverty. Even very eminent Nepali historians have admitted frankly that ‘for the people of Kumaon, the 25 years long Gorkhali rule had a negative impact on important aspects of their lives, political, social, and economic… they voted by their feet i.e. by migrating to other territories…Resistance to the Gorkhali rule by such means was possibly more effective…How else can one explain the phenomenon of waste villages and the incomplete state of agriculture in Kumaon at the time of British take-over ( Imperial Gorkha : Mahesh C. Regmi ). For the British it was their first foray into administering a mountain tract. Lord Hastings ( Earl of Moira, not Warren Hastings !) hand-picked officials well known for their sound-judgement to usher in a highly personalised kind of administration ( Non Regulation, an innovation tried first time here ). Their innovative efforts, their deep understanding of the tract and the psyche of the local people, are best reflected in the long monographs they contributed to the only serious Journals of the day, namely the Asiatick Researches and later the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal ( JASB). Te Statistical Sketches of Kumaon, contributed by Commissioner GW Traill in 1825, followed by at the special request of Lord Hastings, the then Governor General of India, the celebrated Bhotia Mehals of Kumaon ( contributed in 1832 ) are while all time classics of their times, are also a lesson for our present day successor to then ( colonial ) predecessors. It is on record that Commissioner Traill, who spent twenty long years as the Commissioner, never took any official leave, and except for the rainy days, was always travelling. Bishop Heber, who visited Almora in 1825, mentions that it was his sheer good luck that he could meet Commissioner Traill  ! this writer is happy to read that Chief Minister Harish Rawat has recently advised all the bureaucrats, who went to the Bijapur Guest House to pay their Deepawali obeisance, advised him to take time out and visit the country side ! For my bureaucrat colleagues I have left behind for their benefit my well researched account of his and five more first Commissioners in Uttarakhand ( Founders of Modern Administration in Uttarakhand: 1815-1884; Bishen Singh MP Singh ).

Trans-Himalayan Trade with Tibet

These early benefactors of our people realised very early that the trade with the adjoining parts of the western Tibet mandis provided the best possibility of disposal of surplus food grains produced by the hill cultivators, as there were no roads and no markets worth the name during the first few decades of the British rule. The high-Himalayan passes consisted of Nilang from Tehri, Mana and Niti in Garhwal, and Unta-dhura in Johar, and some minor ones in Darma-Byanse valleys. Promoting the Indo-Tibetan trade through these Himalayan passes took various shapes. It package meant ( i )  improving the Dhikuli-Ramnagar-Bageshwar-Thal-Milum or the Johar pass, through which nearly two thirds of the trade volume passed, and improving all roads leading to these land –passes, ( ii ) lightening their financial burdens, as the trade was vulnerable to huge human natural risks, besides a hostile and unsafe terrain once the traders passed the passes, via light land and other local taxes, ( iii ) promoting the local traditional melas like the Jauljibi, at the Kali-Gori confluence, the Thal, at the Ramgang and the celebrated Bageshwar fairs. These were the earliest manifestations of exchange houses, that the communities and countries knew of at that age. Huge congregations of local and even Tibetan ( called Huniyas, in contrast to the Johari Saukas or the Rangs of today ) traders, besides other stake-holders e.g. the Sah money-lenders of Almora and Bageshwar, and whole-salers of Ramnagar Kashipur, enlivened and enriched an economy recovering, but slowly. The net result of this super-human and far-sighted economic revival policy of a nearly ruined mountain economy is best reflected in the massive village complexes that one can even see today in the farthest recesses of this state, Milum, in Johar; Malari and Niti in Garhwal, and to some extent in the substantially built  villages of the Byanse valley of Pithoragarh, once Garbyang ( now wasted by natural calamities ), Gunji and Kuti, in particular. It took nearly six decades of persistent official efforts to see the British Kumaon economy come back on track ( see Beckett-Ramsay Settlement results, 1864-67, the last joint land settlement of British Kumaon ).

Position in Independent India

Post independent India, one is sorry to remark, is anything but a story of utter criminal neglect of almost all of our border regions, stretching from the river Kali to the now unfrequented Nilang pass. While these remote border regions underwent all the pangs of a politically free nation, the first fatal-blow, which nearly finished the local economy was the Chinese occupation of Tibet, with the resultant closure of this main source of economic sustenance, closing century old commercial transaction in 1960. As if this blow was not effective enough, whatever survival was possible was squeezed out by the belated application of the Zamindari Abolition Act, which hit these trading classes the maximum. The period from 1960 till 1971 was a decade that is remembered by all the border ethnic groups as the blackest period in their known and recorded history. No efforts whatsoever were made by the Government of India, to get compensation for the trade losses that were suffered by the traders, due to this unilateral closure of an ancient trade, on which nearly the entire border economy survived. A once proud and self-respecting community, who lived by the harshest way of living known to the human history, were pauperised, overnight as it were. As their population was very small, majority of them not in the mainstream as they were continually on the move, they were left to fend for themselves. If it is was a story of an unexpected but most welcome patronage by a colonial set of administrators the recent history of their treatment by the powers that be, is anything but about which the present day generation of political masters and administrative officials could feel proud about. True, the political dispensation of reservations in educational institutions and public services, made operational with effect from 1967 which could actually start making some real difference only after early 1970s, and where they have to compete with a far larger number of communities enjoining similar dispensations, if one were to look at the present conditions of their once ideal habitats, the real story of continued neglect comes out most tellingly.    

Lipu-lekh : A Symbol of Continuing Neglect

The way the ancient trade through the first revived Himalayan land pass, namely the Lipu –lekh, has been facilitated both by the Uttarakhand and the Union Government, since 1991, demonstrates the current approach of an independent country towards its most marginalised ethnic groups. The development that has been witnessed by the Indians, the trading groups as well as the much-pampered pilgrims to the celebrated Kailas Mansarovar, and every year severely commented upon by a bewildered set of repeat-visitors to these destinations, has not had any impact whatsoever, on our policy-makers, is quite obvious from the state of a strategic road which has been under construction for more than a quarter century now, from Tawaghat to the Lipu-lekh pass itself. So  much so, that a sensitive Prime Minister broaches the subject of ‘an alternative route for the Pilgrims to Kailas and Mansarovar’, nearly transacting by road, or otherwise, almost the entire length of Nepal, along a parallel road in the western Tibet. Much hue and cry is made about this loss, the loss that is likely to be caused by the diversion of the pilgrims ( some 500 or so ), if this happens. To the best of the knowledge of this writer, the entire Kailas -Mansarovar pilgrimage is a “Packaged tour”, traversed by KMVN busses, all accommodation etc provided by this semi-Government tourism Corporation, and subsidized by the Union Government. One just wonders as to what economic benefit it brings to any of the local villages, as it is an entirely government- sponsored and arranged pilgrimage. Sure, the transportation say by mules/ponies and some marginal purchases that these pilgrims might be making would not really count so much as to qualify to be said as a major contributor to the local economy. Right from Delhi to the Tibetan destination and back, is a totally government sponsored event, and substantive terms, this pilgrimage brings nothing by way of contribution to the local peoples economy.  

However, what does not get the attention either of the Premier Narendra Modi or as it seems even our very own Chief Minister, is the utter state of helplessness that is being faced by the traditional local trading communities. This writer does not remember any major announcement, as compared to the competing solicitous noises that have been made recently related to the hardships borne by some 500 odd pilgrims and various attendant pronouncements, which have been made to make the existing trade arrangements more favourable to the Indian traders, all of whom come from the border villages.

Design of a Lipu-lekh Trade Package

What Chief Minister Harish Rawat should be paying more attention to is the economic welfare of his own constituent first, the traders and their attendants who brave the difficulties of undertaking journeys from their cis-Himalayan villages, compete with the traders from adjoin territories of western Nepal on the one hand, and the trading counterparts from whom they exchange or now buy commodities meant for the Indian markets. Briefly, the suggestions would bild down to the following points:

( i ) As Premier Narendra Modi has taken initiatives to normalise relations both with the neighbouring Nepal and the Chinese Republic, the existing terms of trade, flowing from the existing Treaties should be so negotiated that all the existing issues that make the trading conditions of the Indian traders visiting the Takla kot market are resolved; any discussion on these issues should be restricted to re-visiting the trading conditions and the commodities allowed for trade; both the economies have now undergone a sea-change and appreciating that the restrictive list should be drastically reduced ( harking back to the traditional items of trade, no more holds ground ),

( ii ) The import of transport means e.g. the Tibetan sheep and goat, banned since the Beijing Olympics year, must be lifted, and the Quarantine conditions ( which of course are legitimate conditions for both the sides) must quickly be given effect to by the Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Animal Husbandry ), the latter has considerably harmed the Indian trader,

( iii ) An improved understanding with Nepal should result in suggesting a new mechanism whereby the entry from and exit by the Tinkar-Changru passage, from Nepal side, should also be made available to our Indian traders, for the Taklakot market. A look at the survey of India map would make the point clear, as one sees the Tinkar-gad confluence with Kali, below the now abandoned Garbyang village. Even unofficially, as it is learnt, several times the delayed Indian traders has exited via this Tinkar-Changru ( Nepal ) exit. This route remains far longer than the option via the Lipu-lekh pass. Surely, the vested interest of Nepali traders, who really makes the Indian trader resort to a distress sale in order to be able to return via the Lipu-lekh pass, will block all such measures politically, but that is exactly what our diplomats are supposed to be doing.

( iv ) Just as the Nepali traders ae eligible to a so-called “Dry-port” facility, at Banbasa and perhaps Dharchula, customs posts, it is worth exploring whether similar “Dry-port” facilities could not be demanded from Nepal, for the Taklakot market visitors. True, what will have to be negotiated is how the commodities ‘exported’ from Taklakot, via China ( Tibet ) and Nepal ( Tinkar-Changru ) route, could be exited at one of the Indian custom-posts, will have to be facilitated. At this it is a out-of-box suggestion, which could be explored by the Indian experts, jointly with the Indian traders. If the Nepalese trader is a business of a ‘land-locked’ country, so is the Indian trader in Taklakot, which is short-changed by the Nepalese, and even the Chinese, counterpart because of the pass closed by snow. The test of improved relations, trading relations, both with Nepal and China, should be best demonstrated by such facilities coming the Indian trader’[H1]  way. Improved trade volumes in these Himalayan markets are only possible when both sides are ready to accommodate and resolve each sides major trading bottle-necks, and.

( v ) Early resolution of several pending issues, that Chief Minister Harish Rawat could easily find from the past annual reports e.g. functional banking facilities, credit limits for the established traders, currency exchange rates, facilities to the Indian traders at the Taklakot mandi, hassel-free passage mainly on the India side ( less harassment from the ITBP, SSB, IB and other personnel, in the name of security etc ), encouraging the Tibetan traders come to the Gunji mart, improved mart-facilities at Gunji etc, also would need to be addressed. 

( vi ) Nothing could be substituted for an annual official visit of an annual delegation consisting of the District Magistrate Pithoragarh, accompanied with the Trade Officer and some others, and their meeting with the traders and the local Jongpens, should be made a usual feature. This writer after his official visit soon after the re-opening of this Pass had suggested that this should be done, as a regular practice, and

( vii ) Finally, the existing arrangement of the SDM, Dharchula doubling for the Trade cum Pass-port Officer betrays the state of poor attention that has been made to the problems related to the revival of this extremely important economic activity. It was suggested that this Trade Officer’s post should be made permanent, upgraded to at least an ADM rank, given support staff, especially an Assistant Trade Officer, who could deal with traders when the Trade Officer is in Tibet, or some where en route, and be available permanently at Dharchula, to attend to co-ordination and usual official business. Once the Trading season is over, this staff could stay at Dharchula, carry on additional duties, both related to follow-up matters as well as usual work, helping the local officials. This would ensure building up of an institutional memory, ensure systematic follow0up of pending matters, look at various improvements that may be required, as trade and volume grows, with the improvement in existing conditions. 

Tail-piece :

As the remaining 24 traders in Taklakot get ready to negotiate the snow-covered Lipu-lekh pass on the 29th October and they reach the pass before the 31st, while the Chinese officials have completed clearance of the route upto the pass, on the Indian side the work related to removal of snow between the pass and Nabhi dang is not even horse-worthy. At Taklakot there are at least two traders who are senior citizens and they can only return on horse-backs. As regards the unsold goods, it is to be temporarily kept at Gunji only, the first village on the Indian side, and bye and bye it would be transported back home to Dharchula. As in our Dev-bhumi, closing of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath ‘dhams’ are involuntarily closed, one after the other, and the presiding deities receive attention of the highest in the land, the political, the corporate big-wigs, and the media not to be left behind, very imaginatively covers all these major events taking place in the High-Himalayan theater, the stuck-up tribal traders in a completely alien land, wonder if they also belong to a country who are concerned about the ‘mortal human beings’. Are they paying a very heavy cost of competing with the ‘All –Powerful’ ? 

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