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Nathula Pass offers huge trade potential

Mohan Padmanabhan

`An attractive destination for North-East tourism development'

A VIEW of the Nathula Pass

Gangtok , Nov. 2

Even as experts around the world are still grappling to pinpoint James Hilton's idyllic Himalayan kingdom of Shangri-La (in the novel Lost Horizon, penned in 1933) somewhere within Tibet's rugged topography, for any Indian who sets foot on the 14,950 ft ice-laden Nathula Pass for the first time, it is nothing less than Shangri-La itself — a breathtaking location, literally, on the India-China border in Sikkim — a haven of peace and tranquillity, even at a temperature of minus 2 degree Celsius.

Nathula Trade

Ask Brigadier S.L. Narasimhan — a wiry Srirangam Iyengar, commanding his men at the Nathula station — and he will vouch for this. Extremely articulate, even in his native Tamil, he has a whole set of ideas to turn Nathula trade into a viable proposition for both sides.

Trade or no trade, the very thought that now an Indian tourist can, if he dares to, experience the fabled silk route of yore via Tibet and go within the striking distance of Lhasa, makes Nathula an exciting location for North-East tourism. The border point evokes mixed feelings, especially when sighted in magnificent sunlight, after a tough drive up, especially from Tsango Lake (12,300 ft).

Thrown open ceremoniously on July 6, 2006, this much awaited trade point, according to the Union minister of commerce, Mr Jairam Ramesh, may not have yielded much in terms of trade but was actually a symbolic "important political milestone in India-China relations — a seal of Chinese acceptance of Sikkim as a part of India." He, however, admitted that the possibilities, both in terms of trade and also Himalayan tourism, were enormous.

Talking to Business Line later, even the Sikkim Chief Minister, Dr Pawan Chamling, conceded that Nathula's tourist potential itself could be enormously beneficial to the State. He felt that depending upon the movement of goods and services, one can expect substantial revenue and employment generation only from movement of vehicles to prop up Nathula trade route.

Generating Employment

Needless to add, he was also referring to the 154-km route from Siliguri in North Bengal to Nathula, which may actually hold the key for future trade growth. It is felt that daily movement of say 100-150 trucks initially could generate employment for nearly 10,000 people annually (drivers, cleaners, mechanics, loaders, warehouse keepers etc).

Infrastructure development at the border point, beginning with bus connectivity between Gangtok and Nathula (54-kms up the mountain) should be taken up immediately, felt the Union Minister. And a smooth 5-km road link between Sherathang trade mart and the high point of Nathula overlooking China's Tibet Autonomous Region needs immediate attention.

Infrastructure at the trade mart, where all the trade facilities including customs and immigration facilities need to anchored, is now present only as a bunch of sheds.

According to the Sikkim Government, re-opening of the long lost trade route may lead to a dry port in Sikkim, and in turn, convert commercial Siliguri in North Bengal into a veritable trade centre of the region. And for the eternal optimist, if the old silk route can be successfully re-opened, Kolkata-Lhasa trade link can be established, opening up unprecedented economic activity across the entire eastern hinterland.

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