When Chinese traders crossed over to India to do business after the Nathu La Pass was thrown open on Thursday, they expected to see grassy slopes and snow-crested mountains — things they remembered from their past trips or had heard of from their ancestors. Instead, they got potholed roads, pigs rifling through garbage and quaint muddy towns dotted with concrete carbuncles. “So much has changed over the years. Roads have been built but not infrastructure,” recalled 75-year-old Gibu who came from Tibet. That was the sentiment of all others like him.
If the scenery left a lot to be desired, facilities were worse. “We were invited for lunch at Sherathang but when we got there, it was in a complete mess with everyone crying for food. Starting from army jawans to field workers, everyone was literally fighting with each other for a plate. This is disastrous,” Gibu said.
Chinese traders also got very little time to do actual business. Since the border gates were opened after 11 a.m. and trading closed at 3.30 p.m., that gave them just about four-odd hours.
Indian traders didn’t have such a harrowing time. When they crossed over to the Tibetan plateau, they expected to see yaks and mules — once the only way of getting around in this terrain. “But as soon as we got our customs clearance at the border, we were taken to the trade mart point at Rechengang in Tibet by swanky vehicles which we had never imagined,” said Motilal Lahkotia, one of the first businessmen to cross over to China on Thursday.
After the first day of trading, Indian traders realised the tremendous demand for Indian goods. “Just walk into any curio shop in Lhasa and chances are you’ll find that the Buddha statuette you picked up as a souvenir was actually crafted in Moradabad in UP,” said Suresh Kumar of Gangtok.
Not only souvenirs, they saw Chinese traders in hosiery from Ludhiana. “Trade was already there, even though the Nathu La border was closed. They were getting things from Kathmandu. But now we are offering the same items at half the price,” Kumar added.
So how does Sikkim gain? The state, after all, produces nothing that can be exported to Lhasa. But traders are optimistic. “Sikkim and the Sikkimese will definitely gain if they get into the transport and warehouse sectors,” said Lakhotia. “People make fortunes just supplying fodder to mule trains. Others earn lakhs supplying mules and muleteers and many profit from offering their godowns as warehouses,” he added. In modern times, this would mean providing trucks, fuel and storage facilities.
A study conducted by the Sikkim government says bilateral trade is expected to reach $12 billion by 2015.