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China's inroads near the Indian borders

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China's inroads near the Indian borders

Relaxing PAP scheme is a good idea but as a modern state we must use electronic means to control visitors to India’s frontiers even as we promote border tourism

The Union Government is thinking of relaxing the Protected Area Permit (PAP) scheme to enable foreign tourists visit border areas. This is half good news. Why half? Simply because after the Government starts to ‘think’, results often takes months or years to materialise. Let us hope that it will be done soon.

Apparently, the move was triggered by requests from border States of Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Nagaland and Manipur as well as the Union Tourism Ministry. It was announced by Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, who, as an elected Lok Sabha member from Arunachal Pradesh, has long been aware of the issue. Under the Foreigners (Protected Areas) Order, 1958, all areas falling between the ‘Inner line’ and the International Border of the state are considered to be a ‘Protected Area’.

Responding to a tweet by Pema Khandu, Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Rijiju announced the decision about the PAP regime which will allow foreigners to visit the ‘paradise on earth’; he was referring to Shungetser lake north of Tawang, often known as ‘Madhuri Lake’, because the Bollywood actress shot Koyla, also staring Shah Rukh Khan, in the ‘idyllic’ spot.

It is a pity that the Government could not, at the same time, do away with the ‘Inner line’ permit system (for Indian nationals) once and for all. At a time when Artificial Intelligence (AI) has started permeating our lives, the Government is still attached to this 19th century-old scheme which has no place in a modern state. If required, the authorities could find other ‘electronic’ means to control visitors in the Indian frontiers. Hopefully, this would be the next bold decision.

‘Relaxing’ the PAP is nonetheless good for India; after all, these areas are part of the Indian territory and there is no reason why a discriminating ‘Philosophy of North-East Frontier Agency’ put in place by Nehru and his ‘tribal’ advisor Verrier Edwin, should remain in existence. During the 20th century, it has not often protected the local population, while more often alienated them from the main stream of Indian society.

It is also a positive development because happenings on the other side of the border show extremely worrying trends. China is fast developing its frontiers, trying to woo the Tibetan locals, often akin to the Indian populations on the other side of the border.

A few weeks ago, The Tibet Daily asserted, “making the border villages prosperous and well-off is the top priority of the poverty alleviation campaign.” Beijing has, however, a second objective that is to build-up the border defenses against India. With tourism, it plans to kill two birds in one go.

During the recently-concluded National People’s Congress (NPC), Phurbu Dhondup, a deputy and Governor of Lhoka affirmed that there were 96 such border villages in Lhoka Prefecture alone; the prefecture is north of Bhutan and Tawang district.

Dhondup asserted that the Provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Anhui would help Lhoka “make the dramatic transition” from poor border villages to prosperous ones with electricity, first rate access roads, irrigation systems and potable water. The participation of the ‘rich’ Provinces of China in the scheme is an important factor.

Out of the 17-member Tibetan delegation at the NPC, four members were from the borders with India. One Kesang Dikyi, who comes from Metok, north of Tuting sector of Arunachal, which recently witnessed a border intrusion (with Chinese excavators), is a primary school teacher. During a Press conference in Beijing, she remarked: “Our school building was very poor; teachers and students had to pick grass to cover the roof. The grass was taller than we were, so when we were walking back we’d often trip, and we often had our hands cut. If we didn’t pick the grass, rainwater would leak into the classroom.” All this has changed in the recent past.

On March 4, Xinhua announced: “Tibet will strive to make highways reach all townships and administrative villages by 2020 in a bid to boost rural development. …By 2020, all townships which meet necessary conditions and 80 per cent of administrative villages would have access to bus service.”

This includes the border villages north of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Ladakh.

According to a senior transport official of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), “road construction will help the region reduce poverty and increase the income of farmers and herders.”

In 2018, the region will launch projects to make 13 townships and more than 1,000 villages connected by asphalt or cement roads; in other words, ‘an integrated transportation system’ reaching the border with India.

The New Helmsman, Xi Jinping has articulated the dual objective to combat poverty and protect the borders. An article in China Tibet Online noted: “Through accurate identification of those requiring help, the number of poverty-stricken people has reduced by more than 500,000 in the last four years. The TAR’s Poverty Alleviation Office has gradually established a targeted poverty alleviation system, whereby the causes of poverty are analysed.”

For Beijing, tourism is the best way to tackle poverty ...and to protect its borders (by buying the local population on China’s side).

A turning point was Yume. In October 2017, President Xi wrote a letter to two young Tibetans who had introduced to the Chinese President, Yume, their hamlet located north of the McMahon Line (Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh).

Soon after, The Global Times reported: “A sparsely populated township [Yume] has been connected to the state electricity grid, ending life without electricity for its 32 residents.”

The China Daily noted another development north of Arunachal: “After getting access to electricity and the construction of new roads, tea farmers and herdsmen in a village some 200 kilometers southwest of Lhasa in Tsona county founded a cooperative that provides skills training and job opportunities for villagers.” Tsona, an area now extensively developed, is the first small town in Tibet, north of Tawang district of Arunachal.

At the end of the NPC’s sessions, Beijing announced the complete withdrawal of “civilian-oriented, firefighting and frontier defence troops” from the control of the People’s Liberation Army.

What does it mean? The Global Times explained: “The withdrawal of armed police force units engaged in civilian affairs would disentangle the previous complicated chain of command.” It signifies that the PLA will only be given the responsibility of manning the border with India, without having to waste time in ‘fire-fighting’ and other tasks.

The former militia and ‘frontier forces’ will be put under the command of the local party bosses, in a way empowering the local population to man the borders.

With all these happenings on the other side of the India’s northern border, it was high time that India starts promoting border tourism, including for foreigners, and develops these areas, while keeping the environment as idyllic as possible. There is no harm in copying China once in a while.

(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author)

 
 
 
 
 
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