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Ladakhis seek reopening of age-old trade routes

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THE ROAD AHEAD: Ladakhis making mud bricks near the famous Chang La pass near the Line of Actual Control. Locals are pinning their hopes on the reopening of road links with China.
THE ROAD AHEAD: Ladakhis making mud bricks near the famous Chang La pass near the Line of Actual Control. Locals are pinning their hopes on the reopening of road links with China.

Luv Puri

Renewal of ties will ensure the well-being of the region

Leh: With the opening of the Nathu La pass for trade between India and China, people here in Ladakh hope that traditional trade routes with China would reopen soon, helping end their decades-long geographical isolation.

The hope is based on the fact that the people have enjoyed historic and cultural links with China for centuries, particularly with western Tibet. Those ties were snapped after the 1962 war.

The Leh plateau, situated 11,000 ft above the sea level, lies at the heart of famous Central or Inner Asian trading routes.

Flourishing base

Elders here recall Leh as a flourishing base for traders from as far as Central Asia who came here to sell their products, which then made their way to the Indian plains. Similarly, traders' caravans from Ladakh used to go to Central Asia, which was a strong market for their goods. Most of these routes passed through the western Tibet plateau that shares a common culture with Ladakh. Their closing down dealt a blow to the local economy.

The demand of Ladakhis to open the trade routes with China is based on practical considerations. Ladakh is cut off from rest of the country for more than six months, during which all economic activity comes to a complete standstill.

The Army stocks goods for the entire year in August. Due to a paucity of economic opportunities, many youths turn to smuggling of goods on both sides of the Line of Actual Control. Till recently, one could find cheap Chinese goods in the local market.

Now, with extensive surveillance by the Army, even this has stopped. But such is the demand of Chinese goods here that locals go all the way to Nepal to them. Nawang Chora, a local trader, says, "We spend almost the double the price of goods on freight. If our traditional routes with western Tibet are opened, it would reduce prices by half."

Five routes

There are as many as five routes along the Line of Actual Control, and Ladakh shares an approximately 400 km frontier with western Tibet. All the routes pass through Leh.

In April 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised the issue of opening of the Demchok route during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India. But little progress has been done on the ground.

Ladakhis want to use the Demchok tract to facilitate road travel to Kailash Manasarovar.

Another route passes through the famous Chang La pass situated at 17,000 ft above sea level.

The delay in opening of the road links with China has caused unease among Ladakhi politicians.

The political elite points out that the matter needs urgent attention from the Central leadership in view of the immense economic opportunities it presents. Jammu and Kashmir Power Minister and local legislator Rigzin Jora says: "The matter of opening of the old trade links needs an urgent consideration of the central leadership. It would not only boost the local economy but also be beneficial to the country."


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