Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

China's so-called West development is thrusting into what was once the back of beyond. India too must develop its border states

Land bridges in inner Asia

Sikkim-Tibet trade will be the precursor of a larger interaction that can jump-start development in long-forgotten areas.

By B G Verghese

Business Standard, New Delhi 12 July, 2003

Mr Vajpayee’s visit to China has been fruitful. It is obvious that good neighbourly ties between two countries representing ancient civilisations, a third of humanity and two huge and growing economies is desirable for the peace and stability of the region and a new and better ordering of international relations. Greater trade and many-sided exchanges are postulated within a framework of cooperation. This is welcome. However, it is the decision to appoint high level political representatives to expedite a boundary settlement and to open up trade between Sikkim and Tibet across the Nathu La that will be flagged.

It is surely time, 40 years after the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, to settle the boundary question in a pragmatic manner on the basis of ground realities. Territorial adjustments can be considered where they entail virtually no population exchanges at all. Inhabited areas pose more difficult problems and are best left alone. This would be a useful principle to keep in mind as the two sides get down to negotiating a boundary settlement. The gains from such a resolution could soon become manifest with the resumption of traditional economic and cultural ties between Tibet and Sikkim with regard to which there is no boundary dispute.

It is surely time, 40 years on, to settle the boundary question in a pragmatic manner on the basis of ground realities

That the announcement was shrouded in curious semantics on account of Chinese diplomatic compulsions in admitting de facto recognition of Sikkim as part of India is less germane than the fact that it restores a long interrupted engagement that promises increasing dividends in the future. Sikkim and Kalimpong-Darjeeling were adversely affected by the closure of the Himalayan border as was Tibet, which suffered the loss of a cheap and convenient source of Indian supplies and the proximity of Calcutta port, its nearest ocean outlet.

The resumption of Sikkim-Tibet trade will open up a large segment of the Northeast’s international boundaries that constitute 99 percent of its external perimeter. The remaining one percent is made up of its tenuous 22km link with the Indian heartland through the Siliguri neck. The importance of this for the region needs understanding. It signifies another step towards the geo-political and economic transformation of the Northeast, investing it with centrality as a locus of opportunity and connectivity to lands beyond in place of the neglect it has so long suffered as a peripheral appendage of the Indian state.

It will, however, require changed mindsets if the proposition is to be meaningfully acted upon. The country is beginning slowly to set aside the bogey of being swamped by cheap Chinese goods, with Indian manufacturers gamely taking on the competition at home and abroad. But there are still some in Government who not only fear dumping but subversion should the country open its borders too wide and too soon in the already “sensitive” Northeast. However, the fact is that all manner of goods, Chinese and otherwise, are even now being smuggled into the region. The danger lies not in opening up too readily but in unwisely bottling up the Northeast whose people see great opportunity in restored external connectivity. They are right.

The Northeast was denied access to its immediate neighbourhood in China/Tibet, Myanmar/ASEAN, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal in recent history. Now that that doors are opening, it is absurd for anyone to argue that they be kept locked. Geo-political isolation, market disruption and loss of economic opportunity have fuelled insurgency. Peace needs development as much as development needs peace but the Government has regrettably taken a rather limited view of regional and sub-regional cooperation. The unused Moreh-Tamu-Kalewa road and Guwahati international airport bear sad testimony to misplaced caution and lack of integrated thinking. This must change.

Hopefully, the opening of the Sikkim-Tibet border marks a new beginning. An early settlement of the Sino-Indian boundary question would certainly be a boon. However, in political parlance, a boundary is no more than a line demarcating one sovereign entity from another. Yet the term “border” is often conversationally employed as a synonym for boundary whereas in fact it describes a zone of transition from one regime to another, whether in terms of people, language, culture, the economy or environment. Ultimately what matters is the nature rather than the fact of a boundary.

So while focussing on boundary demarcation, management or defence, it is equally necessary to develop a border policy, which implies relationships across boundaries. Unfortunately there is a dichotomy in official policy here with the Government being more concerned with boundaries than with borders. When Sino-Indian trade and cooperation is discussed, the discourse invariably tends to focus on great metros and advanced regions rather than on physically contiguous but conceptually distant and often forgotten border regions. The immediate India-China neighbourhood is not made up of busy development corridors but by Tibet, Yunnan, Sichuan and Xinjiang on one side and India’s Northeast, West Bengal, North Bihar, Uttranchal, Himachal and J&K on the other.

China’s so-called West development is thrusting into what was once the back of beyond. India too must develop its border states. There could be synergy here. Kibitho in Arunachal and Rima in eastern Tibet could be revived as trade marts as much as Leh and Kashi (old Kashgar, across the Karakoram Pass in Xinjiang), where India had a consulate until 1949.

Border trade often starts small but fosters infrastructure and links that facilitate national transactions

Border trade often starts small, improving individual and community livelihoods, but fosters infrastructure and links that progressively facilitate larger national transactions with lower transaction costs. Development of the border regions and exchange across them would establish inviting corridors between India and China. The so-called Kunming Initiative for an overland regional partnership between Bangladesh, (Southwest) China, (Northeastern and Eastern) India and Myanmar in a BCIP quadrant has been mooted for some years at a Track-II level. The South Asia Development Quadrangle lies dormant and the Mekong-Ganga Association is yet to take off. These ideas need to run. Some links are in place. A Sikkim-Tibet initiative could son connect these overlapping regions/sub-regions along yet other coordinates.

Many more land bridges are taking shape in Inner Asia, the rich heartland of an awakening continent – by road, rail, optic fibre, pipeline and air. The network will take time to build. But as and when it is ready, India should be able to connect with its once forgotten but increasingly bustling backyard. There is a new geo-politics at work. It is necessary to travel in order to arrive.

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