Monday, June 11, 2007

Trade at Nathu la amid guns and roses

GANGTOK: Even as Chinese diplomats have called for India to prune troops at Nathu la, the Indian army is in no mood to step back and has already deployed guns with a range of up to 30 km at points close to the Chumbi valley in China.

Nathu la, the pass at an altitude of 14,400 feet on the border with China, was opened in June last year after 44 years to resume Sino-Indian border trade. Although both the Indian and the Chinese governments are looking forward to huge volumes of trade through the pass, trade so far has been worth of Rs 22 lakh against a projection of Rs 207 crore at least made by the Nathu la trade study group. The Sikkim government had commissioned the study.

A Chinese delegation that went to Nathu la on June 4 on a research trip led by Bu Jiango, the minister counsellor at the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, said that India should reduce troop deployment at Nathu la and its trade mart Serathang, for trade’s sake. “Instead of army camps, there should be more shops at Serathang and Nathu la to display more Indian and Chinese goods,” Bu said.

Top army officials at Gangtok told FE that the Union government’s first priority is to provide security to the border and then facilitate the area for trade. The Chinese are always a threat to the northeast and there is no room for relaxation.

As a matter of fact trade is one of the strategies to secure the border diplomatically but physical strengthening of the border has to be ensured, officials said.

Lt Gen CK Saboo, who commands the strategically placed 33 Corps, said 105mm field guns and howitzers and 155mm Bofors howitzers are already deployed on the border. These guns are fitted with additional facilities like laser and radar jamming systems. These guns can penetrate up to 30 km inside China.

Chumbi valley extends from Sikkim to Bhutan and merges at the Sinchula pass on the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan.

Saboo said more sophisticated weapons with a range of up to 100km or more would be deployed at Nathu la. Officials said such deployments would create a check and balance situation, which will ensure peace and help the Sino-Indian border trade to prosper.

They said there is no reason to believe that China has built the 1142 km railway link from Golmund city in its Qinghai province to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), only for trade and tourism and that Beijing would not mobilise its army, weapons and ammunitions using the railway link. Lhasa is around 430 km by road northeast of Nathu la.

To counter the Chinese railway link, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is double-laning the 56 km Gangtok-Nathu la road on an emergency basis and the Union government has sanctioned Rs 783 crore for it. The Gangtok-Nathu la road will be upgraded to the standard of a national highway 35 feet wide flanked by 12 feet wide pedestrian tracks.

The road is now 18 to 22 feet wide. The BRO will also add a 10 km alignment from Thegu to Nathu la exclusively for army movement.

For the plains, where the 33 Corps is located, the Railway Board is currently reviewing the cost of the railway link from Siliguri in West Bengal to Singtam in Sikkim, which was estimated at Rs 2300 crore in 2001.

The road projects are likely to come up by 2009-2010 as a major back up to the army as well as for trade, army officials said.