19th May, 2019

A peek into the Indo-Tibetan trade: Optimism stays even after Doklam crisis

The trade practices between India and Tibet resumed even before the Doklam stand-off resolved. At Shipki La, India’s second border post for trade with Tibet (apart from Nathu La in Sikkim), traders from both the countries have throughout been optimistic of their trade relations with each other. A group of eight traders left for Tibet on August 30. Two other groups earlier returned with a list of demands from the local Tibetans.

What’s in demand?

Due to restrictions, only a dozen odd items can be bought or sold in the cross-border trade. The barter -trade prevails here and no currency is used. Tibetans often demand basmati rice, edible oil, blankets, tea, woollen items, Britannia Good Day biscuits and dry fruits. And Indians usually bring pashmina wool and carpets from Tibet. The Indian traders sell the pashmina and carpets in markets like Manali and Reckong Peo in Himachal. The trade in Shipki La is restricted to local goods or consumable items. But, Nathu La has a huge volume of trade and variety of goods. Hishey Negi, the president of the Kinnaur India-China Traders Association, said, “There is, of course, demand for luxury items like wrist watches. Two years back, I went with two Seiko watches worth Rs 40,000 and brought back carpets. I was asked to bring Omega, Tissot or Rolex watches. That shows there is a need to take the trade to the next level.” India and Tibet have a long history of trade relations. There was a gap after the 1962 war till 1994. At the time, 82 items could be traded, including livestock such as sheep. But livestock import has been banned since 2012 and the list of items has been curtailed too. The trade for livestock, thermos flask and crockery has been stopped.

Trade remains optimistic

The border-tension seems to have no effect on the trade relations. The Indian traders tell that they received a warm welcome on the Tibetan side. “Tension is only on TV channels. They embraced us, made our stay comfortable and placed orders for the next trip”, said Gurdev Singh of Namgia, the gateway town to the Shipki La, located at 18,599 feet. Singh has been travelling across the border for nine years, He says the region is safe and secure. He fondly remembers his fellow-Tibetan traders questioning him, “Bhai, late kyun (Brother, why are you late)?” The annual volume has never exceeded Rs 9 crore (the peak was in 2015). This year, initial trade estimates are worth Rs 3 crore.

China tightens trade permits

Officials admit that scrutiny of trade applications has been tightened. Army and ITBP officials at the border said the Doklam tension has affected clearances this year. Though 94 traders applied for permits this year but only 43 were cleared. Last year, of the 99 applicants, 96 were cleared. A trader can make any number of trips for a year after receiving the clearance. India has placed restrictions on traders travelling to India from Tibet. Indian traders feel India should allow traders from the other side to come to Kinnaur for reciprocity.

Traders’ account

The traders are mostly Kinnauri tribals and Dalits, or belong to BPL families and the trade through Shipki La is a crucial means of livelihood for them. Tourism is seasonal, and farming is tough in the terrain. Traders carry their own utensils and ration (rice and wheat flour) when travelling to Tibet and are allowed to stay in China up to 72 hours. The motorable road ends after Shipki La and the traders walk with their goods on mules to a trade centre at Shipki village. The journey on mule takes three hours. They can’t go anywhere from the trade centre. The language spoken in the part of Tibet across from Shipki La bears similarities with the Kinnuari dialect. [irp]