NEW DELHI - Tuesday, June 12, 2012 -
The Silk Route has always been a fascinating subject for the academics, travellers, historians and adventurers. In the recent years, there has been an extra emphasis on this route both in India and elsewhere. For northern India, especially Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Punjab, Sikkim, Himachal along with Nepal, the Silk Route is of even more importance - both emotionally and economically, for they were a part of this route until the middle of last century.
While there has been an emphasis on re-opening this route, larger home work needs to be done, before making pragmatic recommendations, keeping in mind the political, economic and cultural changes that have taken place in these regions, and also what is taking place today at the larger international level.
What is needed is not just re-opening, rather re-visioning of the Silk Route to accrue maximum benefits, and avoid certain pitfalls.
On the Silk Route, there is an overromanticization. Who would not, given the history attached to it? Not only the caravans passed through this route, but also ideas, religion, people, warriors, bandits and travellers criss-crossed this route, leaving a large remnant of adventure, history, horror, goods, skeletons, and even divided families.
A trip along the route starting from Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) to Kargil would show us the graves of business men from Yarkand, and also people who are living even today, who would trace their history and family to the other side. Besides the materials, even myths and legends passed through this route, leaving fascinating tales; visit the Diskit monastery across the world's highest motorable road - Khardung La, to hear about the Mongolian ghosts.
How did they come all the way to Ladakh travelling over a thousand mile across the treacherous Karakoram pass? Or hear the local myths regarding what one could see in the pond of Panamic, if he or she has a pure heart!
Undoubtedly, from every perspective, Silk Route in our part of the world deserves to be over romanticized. However, keeping it aside, what needs to be done, while making pragmatic recommendations to reopen, is to analyze what is likely to move across, in what volume and leaving what residue.
In terms of economic potential, what is the importance of reopening the Silk Route in the northern regions of India, from J&K to Assam? To analyse that, a historical perspective is essential.
First and foremost, the Silk Route in our part of the world was essentially a feeder one, linking to the main east-west route, transacting with the above mentioned sub-regions of India. Second, even if there was international movement, it was not the primary route; depending on the political stability and safety in what constitutes the western region of China and parts of Central Asia, traders and caravans took alternate routes. The contribution of goods and materials from India was relatively limited when compared to the main route, linking the then Persian and Ottoman empires with China.
If we have to reopen the Silk Route for economic purposes, the following should be kept in mind: first and foremost, in our part of the world, it remains more as a "route" and not as a "road" which can cater to large scale movement of goods.
Across Demchok, Karakoram, and Nathu La passes what would be the nature of movement, given the present status of roads? While China has gone ahead and revolutionized its border regions, India is understanding the strategic significance of border roads only now. While the Chinese have built railway lines linking Lhasa with Beijing, and are considering reaching to Nepal border and expanding the Kodari road into a railway line, we are still considering tunneling the Zoji La. The infrastructural potential to have any meaningful trade that would make significant economic impact is negligible.
While the Chinese would find it easier to bring their goods up to the Indian border by road and rail, what is the existing potential to transport from DBO or Demchok in Ladakh, or from Nathu La to Gangtok up to Kalimpong and the rest of India?
Second, the potential to trade - in terms of men and material, if we have to reopen the Silk Route for the movement of goods, is also limited. What can be traded between the sub-regions and the rest of China, if it has to be a border trade? Yak tails, wool, and some aromatic herbs?
Obviously, this cannot be a border trade, and has to be an international trade, if it has to make any meaningful impact. One load of consignment would flood the markets of Ladakh and Gangtok, and the second one Kashmir valley.
Third, over the years, those who have traded in the erstwhile Silk Route, since its closure, has taken other business from teaching to entering into bureaucracy.
There is a capacity void, which needs to be built first, if one has to explore the possibility reviving the Silk Route for trade. Besides the human capacity, the material capacity to hold and store the goods also is immaterial today. Unless the human and infrastructure capacity is built, the locals will be subsumed by the outsiders.
Fourth, the most important issue would be who would trade, if the Silk Route to be reopened? Will it be the local businessmen, or the big business houses in the rest of India, using their proxies? In Assam, the local business men use a phrase, while talking about reopening the Stillwell route, linking Assam with Kunming cutting across Myanmar -"trade should not cross through" the local communities. Meaning, they should be a part of it, and not relegated to porters of international trade.
The cross-LoC trade, along with the reopening of Nathu La for trade in Sikkim are two important lessons that everyone should read and analyze before making any suggestion to open the borders in the sub-regions for trade. Why is the local community, especially the businessmen, upset over these two trading routes? We need to do this homework, before making any recommendation to open the Silk Route.
While re-visioning the Silk route, above questions need to be kept in mind. Perhaps, the focus should be more on reopening the route for services - primarily tourism. The potential and pitfalls of reopening the Silk Route for tourism will be dealt in the next column. Let us be romantic, but keep every one's interest, especially the local communities and their future in re-visioning the Silk Route. It should be a road benefiting them, and not a route crossing through them.
Chandran is Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi & Visiting Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia and can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org