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If after opening Nathu-la, thousands benefit from tourism in Sikkim, why should a similar strategy not be there for Arunachal Pradesh? If New Delhi doesn’t want to repeat 1962, it must win over the local population
For many years, I had dreamt of visiting Menchuka, one the remotest places on the way to the McMahon Line dividing India and China, in West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. What fascinated me was the fact that British explorers such as Captain Frederick Bailey and his colleague Captain Morshead, who in 1913 surveyed the Himalayas to help Henry McMahon, the British Foreign Secretary, draw his famed map, had never visited the area. It remained a ‘blank’ on the maps. Last month, I finally made it to Menchuka.
After leaving Along, the West Siang district headquarters located 130km from the Assam-Arunachal border, it took another nine hours to reach West Siang’s northern-most administrative circle. A short journey, compared to the perilous adventures of the then Assistant Political Officers travelling from Pasighat in Assam on the annual tour of the North-East Frontier Agency. Expeditions, Missions or simple ‘Promenades’, as the British called them, used to explore these ‘unadministrated’ areas, south of the Outer Line (known as the McMahon Line after 1914).
Today, things have changed. To reach Menchuka from Aalo, takes ‘only’ an entire-day’s drive on the road poorly maintained by the Border Road Organisation; Menchuka is still some 50km away from the Line of Actual Control. Though the Army has apparently started working on a motorable road, my local guide told me that the last 37km to reach the border still have to be walked.
It was ironical, but on the day I reached Menchuka, China announced, mostly ignored by the Indian media, one of the most important strategic advances of the decade. On October 31, Xinhua reported: “Highway open to traffic for China’s last roadless county”. It asserted: “A highway linking Medog [or Metok for the Tibetans], the last roadless county in China, with neighboring Bome county in Tibet formally opened to traffic, ending the county’s isolation from the outside world.” Where does that road lead to?
Not only does it reach within a few kilometers of the Indian border (McMahon Line), north of the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, but it opens the way to construct a series of new dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo (which becomes the Siang as it enters India and later the Brahmaputra in Assam). Xinhua announced: “The 117km highway, which cost 155 million US dollars, links Zhamog Township, the county seat of Bome, and Medog in Nyingchi Prefecture in south-eastern Tibet. The road will be accessible for eight to nine months per year.”
It is one of the most pristine regions of Tibet. The Tibetans have always considered the area around the Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo as the home of the Goddess Dorjee Pagmo, Tibet’s Protecting Deity. Many believe that this place, locally known as Pemakoe, is the sacred realm often referred to in their scriptures: The last hidden Shangrila.
The difficulty of access to the region was one of the greatest obstacles for the engineers who worked in Beijing on the hydro-power plants on the river. For them, it was enough to know that the Yarlung Tsangpo river tumbles down over 3,000m in less than 200km, giving the gorge one of the greatest hydro-power potentials available in the world. It made the new emperors in Beijing dream.
For India, the road’s closeness to the McMahon Line cannot be ignored. Xinhua says: “Mountain paths connecting villages and towns were once the only travel routes in Medog, situated near Tibet’s border with India… complicated geological conditions and frequent natural disasters had thwarted seven previous attempts to build a highway in the area.” The building of the new road was approved by the State Council, China’s Cabinet in 2008 and work officially began in April 2009.
A local Tibetan told the Chinese news agency: “Foot travel and horses have long been the only transportation method for goods in Metok, which has a population of 12,000,” adding that before the opening of the road, “a can of beer [used to be] sold for 10 yuan, more than twice the price of a can in Lhasa”. It makes the populations on our side of the border dream too: Only five years to open a road in such difficult terrain, with one of the longest tunnels in Tibet!
In Menchuka, one hears only regrets. But the situation is even worse in the neighbouring Manigong valley: From Tato, a subdivision headquarters where the Si and the Yomi rivers join to form the tumultuous Siyom, it takes seven or eight hours to cover the 67km to reach Manigong. And then, no road.
One remembers that in August former BJP MP Tapir Gao had claimed that the People’s Liberation Army had intruded at least 30-40km into Indian territory after over-running at least six of the nine Indian check posts in Chaglagam sector of Anjaw’s district. In such a case, it is the local populations which suffer the most, though the Chinese usually treat the indigenous tribes well; they tell them: “You are our own people”, in other words, “Chinese”. Does not China still call the entire State of Arunachal, ‘Southern Tibet’?
Let us not forget that Menchuka and Manigong sub-sectors of Siang Frontier Division witnessed heavy fighting in 1962 and the PLA, who entered via both valleys and regrouped after trekking over local trails, managed to reach Yarpik, some 80km beyond Menchuka. They stayed for three weeks and cajoled the local Adi and Mempa tribes and said, “We will never harm you; we have only a problem with the Indians, you don’t have long noses like them, your eyes and skins are similar to ours”. The people were not fooled, but they could not do much against the Mao's Army which quickly outnumbered the Gorkha Rifles manning the Menchuka-Manigong sector.
One day, I had the good luck to meet 'the oldest man' of the area; he is now 101 years old; he was already a gaon burah (village headman) in 1962. When I asked him his most cherished dream, he said: “Please, tell the Prime Minister to reopen the border, I want to visit my relatives in Tibet and bring back yaks; the species has become extinct here.”
A litany that I heard during my stay in Menchuka is, “on the other side, they are much in advance on us. Why don’t we have proper roads to the border?” It would certainly be a workable solution to ‘fix’ the border and develop the area; Delhi definitively needs to take the local population along.
If after opening Nathu-la, thousands live from the tourism in Sikkim, why not the same in Arunachal? If Delhi does not want to repeat 1962, roads are strategically and militarily vital, but as important, India has no choice but take the local population on its side.