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Sikkim steals a march over Bengal in Nathu-la pact

Gangtok/Kalimpong, June 30: Seventynine-year-old Madan Mohan Mintry is bitterly disappointed that Sikkim, and not Bengal, will reap the benefits of reopening of border trade between India and China.

Mintry’s grandfather, Rai Bahadur Ram Chandra, was among the first traders who worked a route from Kalimpong in Bengal entering Tibet through Jelep-la in southeastern Sikkim that dates back to 1871, much before Nathu-la popped up on the business map.

“With the decision to make Nathu-la the main point of entry, Gangtok will no doubt be the gainer and Kalimpong the loser,” Mintry said.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government is possibly not even aware of a missed opportunity because Bengal’s voice has not been heard in the din of the loud lobbying by Sikkim over a length of time with Delhi for resumption of border trade.

Sikkim chief minister Pawan Chamling is effusive in praise of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for getting one of the main demands of the state through during his visit to Beijing.

“Sikkim had seen the diplomatic play in the talks between New Delhi and Beijing since 1990s. Now that the MoU has been signed between the two countries (on border trade), we want a rapid implementation of the agreement and not allow it to be trapped in the usual bureaucratic delays. While many procedures and creation of trade facilities on the ground will take place, we hope that they will be completed quickly,” Chamling said.

He was not prepared to name a deadline, but Gangtok is full of talk about how restoration of trade would release forces of economic change. Chamling himself believes the trans-Himalayan regions in China and the subcontinent are on the verge of a dramatic economic transformation.

Mintry regrets that Kalimpong has missed the chance of being the pivot of this experience. “Kalimpong was the main centre of commerce with Tibet and Jelep-la was the main pass. Today, it’s just a subdivision town, with no political heavyweights to represent its case,” he said.

In Gangtok, officials are anxiously awaiting information from Delhi about the modalities of the trading process. “Besides media reports, we have no details about the kind and volume of border trade that will pass through Sikkim. We only know that the two countries (India and China) have decided on two trading hubs — Tsomgo in Sikkim and Rinchingang in Tibet,” a bureaucrat said.

Officials are fully aware of the sensitive nature of the activity because there is always more than mere commerce involved in trade between India and China. Trade over land means movement of people across borders, bestowing on the state government the responsibility of monitoring the flow.

“The government will also have to keep in mind social and cultural safeguards. The enormous trading activities with large transportation involved will certainly have its effects on the fragile environment of the area,” the official added.

It will certainly not be like old times, the sweet jingle of bells of mule trains carrying exotic products of commerce caressing the thin mountain air.

“When we talk about the old Sikkim-Tibet trade, we are talking about the forbidden city of Lhasa. And the opulence of silk, brocade and heavily bejewelled servants of the British empire. The trade was so much a part of the empire, of social gatherings where the choicest wine was served and tables were laid with fine China crockery and silver cutlery. Gangtok and Kalimpong were melting pots of various civilisations. The new border trade will be anything but what it was,” said a descendant of a British Trade Agent.

The late Rai Bahadur Sonam Topden, a Sikkimese bureaucrat, was posted at Gyantse, the last Tibetan trading post before Lhasa.

Nothing is left of that tradition. Not even the people that made their first fortunes from the trade through Kalimpong.

“They have left for greener pasture after the trade froze in 1962, (but) we preferred to stay back in Kalimpong, though branching off to other businesses,” said Mintry.

Jeevan Ram Marda, 85, recalled that his grandfather Ram Chand was general manager of the Jetmal Bhojraj company, one of the largest Tibet trading houses. “We were the clearing agents for Hindustan Lever and Nestle for Sikkim and Tibet for all their products,” he said.

Marda remains a large distributor of the products of the two companies in the region with warehouses in Siliguri, which, he believes, is perfectly positioned to cash in on resumption of trade. Trade with the mainland of India has to pass through Siliguri.

“With border trade being thrown open, if Bagdogra, the only airport in the region, is upgraded to an international one, it could emerge as the transit point for the increased flow of passengers,” said Chamling.

Mintry, though dejected, has not given up on Kalimpong. “If things work well in Nathu-la, economics could then justify reopening of the Kalimpong-Jelep-la route. If Calcutta is smart enough, it will upgrade the infrastructure in north Bengal and press the Centre for an additional trading point with China,” he added.

Will Calcutta be smart enough'

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