Traders plead for silk route alternative

Kalimpong, July 6: Satyanaryan Agarwal and Rameshwar Das Bhadoria look at the reopening of Nathu-la with mixed feelings.

As veteran traders of Kalimpong, which once used to be an important centre of Indo-Tibetan commerce, they are happy at the resumption of border trade with Tibet and China, but disappointed that Nathu-la has been chosen over Jelep-la for the purpose.

Their disappointment is understandable: as young men more than fifty years ago, they were involved in border trade through Jelep-la. In fact, before the Sino-Indian war of 1962, most of the trade with Tibet took place through Jelep-la with Kalimpong acting as a trading hub.

Jelep-la mountain pass, at 10,827 ft above sea level, is located south-east of Nathu-la and connects Tibet with Kalimpong via Sikkim. The Kalimpong to Jelep-la road used to be the most easily navigable route between the two countries.

“Unlike Nathu-la, which remains closed for almost six months annually (due to snowfall), Jelep-la is open throughout the year. That is why it would have been prudent to trade with Tibet through this pass,” said Agarwal, sitting inside his shop at 10th Mile here.

At the moment, though, the road from Kalimpong to Jelep-la is motorable only up to the halfway point.

Agarwal recollected the days when the streets of Kalimpong used to be chock-a-block with mules, the only mode of transport across the mountainous pass. Few shops further down, Bhadoria, who at 73 is two years younger than Agarwal, added: “At times, there used to be about 500 mules here, each able to carry 80 kg.” While mostly raw wool and silver coins came from Tibet, just about everything was exported from here.

Putting Jelep-la over Nathu-la, Bhadoria said: “Tibetans trust the traders of Kalimpong and would much rather do business with us.”

However his conviction does not seem to be shared by the powers-that-be in Darjeeling, Calcutta and Delhi. Worse, even the local business and political leadership seemed rather half-hearted in their effort to press for the reopening of Jelep-la. “We have been preoccupied with the Sixth Schedule, but we could take up the matter in the future,” said Gaulan Lepcha, local MLA.

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