Saturday, Jul 20, 2019 | Last Update : 10:28 AM IST

A worrying scenario at Ladakh border

| CLAUDE ARPI
Published : Jun 19, 2016, 11:05 pm IST
Updated : Jun 19, 2016, 11:05 pm IST

Nubra constituency in Ladakh shares its borders with both China and Pakistan. The charming valley, partially opened to tourism, is one of the most strategic spots of India’s northern borders.

Nubra constituency in Ladakh shares its borders with both China and Pakistan. The charming valley, partially opened to tourism, is one of the most strategic spots of India’s northern borders. Last fortnight, it was in the news for quite a different reason.

An English daily reported the local MLA “felt ashamed on seeing the development on the other side of the Line of Actual Control”. The MLA, Deldan Namgyal, told the newspaper the “Chinese and Pakistani villages across the LAC along Ladakh’s scenic Nubra valley are electrified and enjoy better facilities, and the Chinese Army has been taunting border villagers to move to China”. He added: “Unless there are immediate developments and the quality of life gets better on the Indian side, the borders will not be safe.”

Mr Namgyal has a point. “Infrastructure, roads, electricity and the communications network is amazing on the other side,” he says. “The irony is that the Chinese (Army) keeps suggesting to the sarpanch in Demchok to join China rather than sitting with India. What could be more humiliating than this ” Whether it is true is difficult to say, but it certainly points to something which could become a serious problem if not tackled wisely and quickly.

In April, the Daily Excelsior spoke of local discontent in Demchok, the last Ladakhi village in southeast Ladakh: “Frustrated with the Chinese Army’s frequent intervention and objections over carrying out any kind of development activities near the border, the inhabitants of Demchok village have demanded resettlement.”

What has so far been the strength of the Indian position is the deep-rooted nationalism of the population living on the borders, whether in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand or Ladakh.

According to Excelsior, residents of 39 households have been on dharna after the Chinese Army raised objections over villagers laying a pipeline from the hot spring to their village for drinking water. Villagers sitting around the national flag decided to set up a tent on the banks of the Demchok nallah, that marks the Sino-India border.

Later a delegation led by sarpanch Rigzin Tanges gave a memorandum to the deputy commissioner in Leh.

The problem is that the People’s Liberation Army is “advancing” in the region. Before 2008, a villager told the Jammu-based publication: “No PLA post was existed at Demchok and only routine patrolling was conducted from Chagchik post, located around 45 km from Demchok. In 2008, on the pretext of the Beijing Olympics, the PLA had established their post at Demchok.”

While the overall situation along the LAC with China is relatively stable, thanks to Army vigilance and regular meetings between military officials of the two sides at the two border meeting points (BMPs) at Chushul and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), the situation remains complex.

The ritual encounters are usually marked by saluting both nations’ flags, speeches and exchanges of greetings and good wishes. This, however, doesn’t resolve the main problem, which is China’s irredentism, whether it is in the South China Sea or on the Himalayan slopes.

The Chinese Army’s strategy seems to be to keep raising objections over trivial issues such as laying water pipes or building infrastructure on the Indian side of LAC, so that the matter of Demchok cannot be permanently settled.

Perhaps just as critical for India is the deluge of Chinese tourists in Tibet. Last year, 20 million tourists visited the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This year, according to Lhasa’s tourism bureau, it got 176,100 tourists during the May Day holiday (April 30-May 2).

Bayi, located north of the India’s Arunachal Pradesh border, got more than 174,000 tourists from January to March 2016, up by 53.23 per cent. Bayi (or “8-1”) means the area belongs to the PLA, whose anniversary falls on 8-1 (August 1). At the same time, western Tibet (opposite Ladakh) has seen a five-fold rise in visitors over a year.All this doesn’t deter the Indian government from archaic policies like an antiquated “Inner Line Permit” that dates back to the Raj and still prevails in border areas. Will this ever change

To welcome millions of tourists, Beijing is developing the infrastructure on the plateau at a rapid pace. Take the new railway between Chengdu and Lhasa. An English daily recently wrote: “A colossal roller-coaster is how a senior engineer described it. He was talking about the railway China plans to build from the lowlands of the south-west, across the world’s most forbidding terrain, into Tibet.”

A Xinhua article explains the importance of Chinese “tourism” for India’s security. Titled “Across China: Heavenly road brings the high life to Tibetan Plateau”, it refers to National Highway 219, known in India as “the Aksai Chin road”.

Xinhua says: “It is the melon season in neighbouring Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, fresh fruit is stacked up at the roadside, waiting to be ferried through the Kunlun Mountains and up to the plateau along the Xinjiang-Tibet highway.” This road not only links the two most strategic (and restive) provinces of China (Tibet and Xinjiang), but also helps tremendously to cut the cost of the PLA’s operations on the border with India.

Xinhua explains: “With a safe, modern highway, transport costs from Yecheng to Ngari have fallen by 55 per cent, leading to 40 per cent cuts in the price of commodities in the Tibetan town. Better yet, the number of tourists in Ngari has surged fivefold.” In other words, China’s “India front” will get its supplies faster and cheaper.

It is time for New Delhi to wake up to what is happening on the other side of the LAC. This is specially important when the two fronts facing India (Ladakh and Arunachal) have been merged by the PLA into one western theatre command, greatly improving China’s management of its borders with India.

A few weeks ago, the Jammu and Kashmir government “approved” the construction of a 150-km long Chushul-Demchok road. But this proposal has now been sent to the National Board for Wildlife for clearance! And as usual in India, “final clearance” will take years, and construction will continue for decades.

In 2013, Thupstan Chhewang, Ladakh MP, said: “If we say Ladakh is our territory, why does anyone who wants to go beyond Pangong have to get permission from New Delhi Demchok should be opened for tourists. That will make our claim strong and help develop border areas.”

Will New Delhi have the foresight and the time to look into this issue, and perhaps do something about it. China, meanwhile, advances its pawns, slowly but surely.

The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.