Thursday, February 5, 2015

Kailash via Nathu: not a Big Thing

150,000 Chinese visitors in Sakya in 2014
A few days ago, when Sushma Swaraj, the Indian foreign minister was in China to prepare the visit of Narendra Modi to Beijing in May (and rebalance India’s foreign policy after the visit of President Obama to Delhi), PTI reported: “India and China exchanged notes on modalities for opening the second route for people undertaking the Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra in Tibet via Sikkim, expected to benefit Indian pilgrims.”
The Indian news agency added: “The route through Nathu La Pass will facilitate comfortable travel for Indian pilgrims by buses.”
The same day, Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs tweeted (he is a great tweeter): “India-China exchange notes on modalities for additional route for Kailash Manasarovar Yatra in 2015.”
Swaraj had earlier stated that the opening of the new route would be a ‘big thing’.
The MEA presently takes 700/800 yatris (in 18 batches for a 22-day journey) via Lipulekh Pass in Pittoragarh district of Uttarakhand. This route is often subject to bad weather and floods like in 2013.
Always optimistic Indian Officials had announced that the number of pilgrims could rise considerably once the new route via Nathu-la is opened.
It was what was expected after the fanfare announcements and great tweets.
Unfortunately on February 2, the Sikkim Government clarified: “because of sufficient and inadequate infrastructure on both sides, only four batches comprising 50 yatris, five supporting staff and a nodal officer would be allowed.”
The statement added that this year, the Kailash Manasarovar yatra, via Sikkim through Nathula, would commence from June and end in September.
The Chinese authorities had earlier mentioned that several thousand pilgrims would be allowed to travel on the new route.
What a climb-down!
Merely 200 pilgrims between June and September!
Let us recall that the Sikkim government was given the responsibility of putting in place all the required infrastructure, as well as transport, accommodation, medical facility, acclimatization centres for the yatris.
The Sikkim government's statement also announced the MEA would soon invite applications from candidates for the yatra.
Before the arrival of President Xi Jinping for his maiden visit to India in September 2014, PTI had said that, as a ‘political gesture’, the Chinese President was to announce during his visit, the opening of a new route for Indian pilgrims wanting to go on the Kailash/Mansarovar yatra.
At that time, I questioned: “The question which needs to be asked: is it a ‘great gesture’ from Beijing or only a self-serving one?
According to the Indian news agency, the proposal was under serious consideration for some tome: “All announcements including the quantum of investments China plans to make in India are expected to be announced during Xi's visit.”
Earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested Xi to offer an alternative to the Lipulekh pass in Pittoragarh district of Uttarakhand for the Kailash yatra. Either Demchok in Ladakh, or Shipki-la in Himachal Pradesh was expected to be the new port.
It made sense in terms of access and 'comfort'.
During Xi's September visit, it was officially announced that Beijing had decided to open Nathu-la border point in Sikkim. PTI says: “The new route, though longer, takes pilgrims from Nathu La to Shigatse … [and] from there the pilgrims could comfortably travel to Mansarovar and Kailash using well laid out highway.”
It was obviously the Chinese argument as it will clearly take the Indian pilgrims for a long (and expensive) ride.
The news agency then added: “It would be part of the big gesture of friendship not only to strike chord with Modi but also the people at large, specially the Hindus and Buddhists considering its religious importance.”
I then asked: "But is it a gesture of friendship or a decision driven by self-interest?"
The Chinese foreign ministry had told PTI that “lodging and boarding facilities for pilgrims have been improved with new hotels and additional beds with additional investments. Pilgrims also can have access to over 2300 vehicles.  ...Indians pilgrimage to Tibet is an important content of bilateral relations. China's willingness is in accordance with the spirit of the agreement which has been signed by both parties...”
Merely two hundred pilgrims in 2015 shows that the new India-China friendship has not matured as yet.
It is difficult to believe that infrastructure is the issue.
The Chinese government announced in January that “The recently upgraded Shigatse city of Tibet wants to boost the tourism industry of Sakya county.”
The famous Sakya monastery is en route between Chumbi Valley (on the Tibetan side of the Nathu-la) and the Kailash area.
Zhang Xiuwu, vice-mayor of Shigatse and Party chief of Sakya county recently announced: “Sakya offers great opportunities for tourism right now along with Shigatse developed into a city. Sakya county has been called the second Dunhuang of China, and it is listed as one of the two Chinese historic cities in Tibet autonomous region.”
Zhang Xiuwu added: "Tourism is very useful for rural residents, and we look forward to welcoming more tourists in the future. Sakya is enriched with plentiful tourism resources, and he believes that tourism can generate big profits in a short period of time.”
Guess how many visitors Sakya received last year?
Zhang said: “Statistics show that the county mainly receives pilgrims and academic researchers, and it welcomed an average of 400,000 pilgrims annually in the past three years.”
In 2014, the county received 146,000 tourists, and tourism revenue reached US $ 2.6 million.
According to The China Daily, Ngari, where the Kailash is located, received 470,000 visitors ,during the Year of Horse (last year): an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous year.
It is said that an integrated tourist center in Sakya can provide a tour guide, tickets to attractions, banks, post office, communications facilities and a specialty shopping center.
Infrastructure is enough to receive 150,000 Chinese tourists in Sakya, 400,000 in Ngari and just 200 Indians to Kailash?
What to conclude?
That this Indian pilgrimage is not a Big Thing for Beijing!

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