“Our ancestors used to sell yak tails but does it still have a market? Even wool is a thing of the past,” grumbles Passang Bhutia from Pharey in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in China.
His sentiments are echoed not only by Chinese traders but Indians traders too, who are finding it increasingly difficult to import goods from TAR through Nathu La. Their bugbear the import-export list.
With goat and sheep skin, wool, raw silk, yak tail, yak hair, china clay, borax, Seaibelyipe, butter, Kashmiri goat and common salt on it, the import list for India is clearly medieval. These are items India used to import in the days of the old Silk Route. This misfit of a trade list also leads to other problems.
Since the Chinese government has not imposed a trade list of any sort, TAR traders arrive with truckloads of Chinese commodities like flasks, electronic goods, garments and blankets items hugely popular in India.
But India cannot look beyond its import-export list. The result: at the end of the day, TAR traders return home with all their goods.
This year, with trade commencing on the May 1, only 60 kg silk and 47 pieces of yak tail have been imported.
“We are not interested in trading in the enlisted items. They should change the list and include Chinese flasks, soup bowls, clothes, shoes, carpets and electronic items,” says Passang.
Chinney Rinzing, an Indian trader and president of the Indo-China Traders Association of Sikkim, nods in agreement.
He says that Chinese traders constantly complain that all the buying that takes place is by Chinese traders. “They press us to barter goods. But we were helpless. If we buy the goods, we will not be allowed to bring them back to India by customs officials as these goods don’t feature in the list,” he says.
Rinzing suggests that India either declare free trade or if it is bent on dubbing this border trade, allow trade in all goods available or indigenous to the borders.
All trade organisations related to this border trade feel the same. “During 1954-62, we used to export everything from Sikkim to Tibet. In fact, Nathu La took the load of more than 80 per cent of the freight traffic between Sikkim and Tibet.
When business reopened after 44 years, we were surprised to see we could deal in only 15 items for import and 29 items for export.
The list is too restrictive and it must be expanded,” says Sikkim Chamber of Commerce president SK Sarda.
The only ray of hope: Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industries Jairam Ramesh on June 27 had said the import-export list would definitely be expanded.