The age-old barter system is back along the Sino-Indian border but with a twist as Indian traders smuggle daily needs into Tibet in exchange for fancy Chinese goods through the Line of Actual Control.
The area — Changthang — is located southeast of Ladakh and has been a haven for smugglers who carry essential commodities like rice, wheat, vegetables having longer shelf-life, cigarettes and “bidi” and cooking oil.
And in return, the Indian smugglers flood the market with Pashmina shawls, Chinese crockery, toys, electronic items and blankets, say civil and military officials in Ladakh area.
According to these officials in this Himalayan township, before last year’s Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese had set up two temporary shelters in Dumchele area opposite to India’s Changthang area where traders from both sides assembled and exchanged goods to the tune of several crores of rupees.
Some of the officials also feel that smuggling was being allowed by the Chinese because it was difficult for them to maintain the essential supplies to western Tibet area from the mainland.
As the Tibetan protests grew during the Olympics, the Chinese closed down this facility and sealed the borders, thus paving the way for smugglers from both sides to operate in a major way on barter system.
Though the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and army have been trying to clamp down on these smugglers, but they also admit that it is difficult to curb it because of hundreds of mountain passes which are difficult to man.
Some of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also alleged that a tightened crackdown always saw political intervention by Ladakhis who have been asking the security personnel to allow this trade to carry on as it was the mainstay for many people.
Recently, the customs set up a check post at Nyoma and initiated a crackdown on the traders carrying the smuggling racket but not much has been achieved.
Changthang is a high-altitude plateau in western and northern Tibet extending into southeastern Ladakh, with vast highlands and giant lakes.
From eastern Ladakh, Changthang stretches approximately 1,600 km east into Tibet, as far as the province of Qinghai. All of it is geographically part of Tibetan plateau. It is also the home of the Changpa nomads.
The people of the Changthang are nomadic pastoralists, they are known as Changpa for Northerners or Drukpa for nomads in Tibetan. As of 1989, there were half a million nomads living in Changthang.
Unlike many other nomadic groups, the Changpa are not under pressure from settled farmers as the vast majority of land they inhabit is too inhospitable for farming.