Can trade in yak tail boost economy?

Nathu La, July 8 :

The historic reopening of the fabled Silk Road for border trade between India and China has ushered a sense of euphoria. But can the much-hyped border trade really change the locals’ economic life?

On Thursday, the road at the 14,400-foot-high Nathu La Pass opened to much applause after 44 long years. The 563-km Silk Road links Tibet with Gangtok, capital of India’s Sikkim state, via Nathu La, a small valley sandwiched between two lofty mountain ridges. “Is this going to promote Tibet-Sikkim trade or India-China trade?” one man who witnessed the opening asked Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling.

The chief minister had no clear answer. There are reasons to be cynical about the so-called border trade; there are real doubts over the economic spin-offs from the trading. For one, trading along this hostile terrain is open for just 64 days a year — four days a week from June to September each year due to the extreme weather conditions.

And the items for trade range from commodities like yak tail, yak hair, spices, goatskin, goats, horses, barley and local herbs — 29 items to be exported by India and 15 by China. With infrastructure on the Indian side just symbolic, the 52-km narrow winding road from Gangtok to Sherathang, the main business hub on the Indian side five-km below Nathu La, is definitely not ready for container traffic.

“I think more than business, this is just a symbolic trade,” quipped a Chinese journalist covering the event. “You think selling yak tail, yak hair, goats, horses and local herbs would change the economic fortunes of the two nations?” Interesting is the motley group of 100 people who were part of the first team of Indian traders to cross over to China on Thursday.

“I really don’t know what I am going to sell. Let me visit China first and see,” said one of them, Janakumari Gautam, a middle-aged Sikkimese woman. There are murmurs among genuine Indian traders — trade permits would be allowed to people from Sikkim only.

“How can you call it India-China trade when traders from outside Sikkim are not allowed to do business,” asked Naren Singh, a wholesale grocery dealer in the nearest business centre of Siliguri in West Bengal. But despite the cynicism, there are some positives emerging out of the historic event — prospects of Sino-Indian relations reaching new heights and some major political brownie points scored by the Sikkim chief minister as he was given the chance by New Delhi to hog international media attention. Chamling’s SDF is ruling the state for the third successive term.