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Heights hold the key to nation’s sovereignty

Thursday, 19 June 2014 | Claude Arpi | in Edit

A separate ministry for the Himalayas is a great idea which has, unfortunately, not received the attention it deserves. Even purely from the security perspective, an emphasis on the Himalayan region makes sense

A significant article by Mr PD Rai, member of the Lok Sabha from Sikkim, did not create any splash (or even get noticed) by the Indian media. Mr Rai wrote for IANS on ‘A ministry for the Himalayas: Not a day too soon’.

The Sikkim MP noted: “The recent news about the active consideration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government to start a new ministry to oversee the Himalayas is most welcome. In all these years since independence, ignoring the Himalayas has been wholly unwarranted and shocking. To many of us who have been hammering away at this thought, it is the most welcome of all news emanating from the newly formed Government.” I agree with him.

Though one of the two (out of 13) ‘non-BJP Himalayan MPs, Mr Rai believes that the Modi Government should go ahead in the path-breaking direction of creating a Himalayan ministry. The Sikkimese MP, for example, mentions the train: “...mountain railways have been around since the days of the British Raj. They managed to take the railways to Darjeeling, Shimla and Coonoor hills (Nilgiri Mountain Railway). The British had made these technological feats. However, since independence, the technology stands where it was in 1947.”

While India has been sleeping, the Chinese were not. Later this year, the train will reach Shigatse (not far from the Chumbi Valley) and China will then continue the line towards Nyingchi Prefecture, north of the Indo-Tibet border. It is not only the train, but a four-way road is also under construction.

On June 5, 2014, Xinhua reported: “As a main trunk connecting a dozen of key highways in Tibet, Lhasa-Nyingchi Highway bears great significance in building a flexible traffic network covering China’s border provinces as well as upgrading China’s national defence capacity.” It is interesting that the ‘defence capacity’ is mentioned; Xinhua is usually silent on this subject; it is certainly a warning to the Indian Prime Minister who announced his determination to build roads to the borders.

One has to see the recent visit of Prime Minister Modi to Thimphu is this perspective. The new Government sees the Himalayas as one; culturally, environmentally and strategically, the great mountain barrier is one entity. The first step for the new Government is to reinforce India’s defence, while taking along local populations in the mainstream.

Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar already announced that his Ministry was working on a policy for fast-track green clearance for border roads and defence projects up to 100km from the Line of Actual Control.

Recently, when Union Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh informed the  Indo-Tibetan Border Police that he wanted to visit all border posts to assess the ground situation, (he specifically mentioned the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh), he was told that a trip to Arunachal would be difficult as many posts are extremely remote; it takes a 10-day walk to reach the LAC.

An ITBP officer told The Times of India: “The Home Minister can be flown to Ladakh and Leh but several parts of Arunachal Pradesh would be inaccessible even aerially”, adding that a normal long-range patrol to the border in Arunachal Pradesh takes “as long as 21 days with the perils of negotiating dense jungles and treacherous terrain”.

A quicker environmental clearance would also give an appreciable boost to India’s newly-created mountain strike Corps at a time when several parts of the scheme are blocked. The Indian Express reported that “close to 80 critical border roads have been stuck for many years due to environmental hurdles. These include crucial GS (General Staff) roads that link border outposts and camps to the main roadhead. In all, around 6,000 km of critical road stretches which were stuck can now be expedited.”

Though Bhutan is today linked by air, many remote areas of the Indo-Tibet borders have not changed much from the day, 56 years ago, when Jawaharlal Nehru visited Bhutan. The then Prime Minister and his entourage had to undertake a long trek via the Chumbi Valley in Tibet. It was the customary and easiest road to reach the Kingdom of the Dragon. At that time India and China were still ‘friendly’.

These relations between Tibet and the Himalayan States, which have for centuries been vital to India, deteriorated a few months after Nehru’s visit, with the uprising in Lhasa in March 1959 and the consequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India. Thereafter, the Chinese tightened their grip on the Tibetan plateau; this was a tragedy for India’s defence and the Himalayan economy.

By paying his first visit to Bhutan, Mr Modi wanted to show the importance of the Himalayas for his Government. Indeed India’s relations with the mountainous region are a vital one; for centuries, the Himalayas have been the bridge between India and the Tibetan plateau; both shared a common spiritual search. All this changed in October 1950, when the Chinese troops entered Tibet (to liberate it, China still says).

Amongst other measures, the Modi Government is thinking to encourage civilian settlements in the border areas. It is a good thing.

When asked about Himalayan people, fearing China’s intrusions, moving away from the borders, Kiren Rijiju, the Minister of State for Home Affairs told Rediff.com: “If we manage to strengthen our forces along the border, I’m sure that it can take care of the local fear. But if we are unable to provide basic necessities to the people living the border areas, then definitely people will run away. In this modern world, people need basic amenities for their livelihood; if these basic facilities such education, health, road, communication services, drinking water supply are not made available, people will migrate.” The Arunachal MP adds: “These areas should be treated in a totally different way.”

Environmentally too, the Himalayas are one and different. As Mr Rai puts it: “The Indian Himalayas stands tall. These are the water towers. They feed the myriad of rivers that so far have been providing water security to millions of people downstream.”

Whether it is the problems of deforestation, excessive number of hydropower projects, climate change and subsequent melting of glaciers, or careless development, the issues are the same from Ladakh to the Myanmar border.

Let us not forget also that the Himalayas have always provided the nation its best soldiers. The Himalayan people are known to be strongly nationalist; this at a time when the local ‘minorities’ on the other side of the Himalayas (particularly the Tibetans and the Uyghurs) are becoming more and more restive, often violently opposing Beijing’s rule. Indeed, the fact that the Himalayans have strong feelings for India, could be a game-changer in case of a conflict. India should not miss the opportunity.

The creation of a Ministry for the Himalayas is a great idea.