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Desert storm over foreign hand

Chinese Govt engineers have been allowed to work in a restricted area close to India’s border with Pakistan, reports Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2008 02:59 IST
Neelesh Misra
Neelesh Misra
Hindustan Times

Chinese government engineers were allowed to work in a restricted area close to India’s border with Pakistan after Rajasthan’s BJP government violated national immigration laws.

When local MP Manvendra Singh — also from the BJP — escalated the matter to New Delhi last month, the Centre looked the other way — apparently because it did not want to stir up a diplomatic ripple ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s (recently concluded) visit to Beijing.

Nine Chinese government engineers are now in Barmer, and dozens more are to arrive shortly. The final tally is expected at sixty, according to local sources. The engineers are working on the Rs 5,000 crore, 1,000 MW Raj West lignite-based power project at Bhadres, 30 km west of Barmer.

Bhadres lies in the restricted area west of NH 15 that cuts through Barmer town, slicing Barmer district into two nearly equal halves. Under a 1988 order, foreigners cannot enter the area west of NH 15 without permission from the central government.

On December 26, 2007, the Centre relaxed rules for foreigners working on hydroelectric projects close to the border in the Himalayas — a relaxation that does not apply to the Raj West project.

Raj West got the Barmer district collector’s permission only on January 2, 2008 — after Manvendra Singh lodged a police complaint. “We applied for clearances to the collector and he has issued them,” Upendra Singh, a director of Raj West, told Hindustan Times.

But the district collector is not even empowered to grant such permission.

Barmer collector Subir Kumar began by telling HT, “There has been no violation of rules. Permission has been given to the Chinese to stay.” Asked who gave the permission, he said: “That I cannot say right now.”

But he later did a complete turnaround, and said, “We are taking action against the company. The law will take its own course.”

When HT asked Upendra Singh if Raj West had broken the law, he said: “I don’t want to comment on that.” Under the law, violators are to be detained, interrogated and deported.

In New Delhi, there was no immediate comment from the foreign ministry. But there is another, more human aspect to the story. While the government disregarded its own laws for a bunch of Chinese engineers, across the region's villages, thousands of Hindu and Muslim families pined for their loved ones not too far away in Pakistan who cannot visit homes here because of crackdowns under the very same laws — because the relatives are Pakistanis.

Only a few days ago, in an office not too far from the hotel where the Chinese engineers are staying, authorities issued orders to throw out Pakistani software engineer Ran Singh Sodha, who had come to Barmer to visit his family. Sodha was arrested, questioned by intelligence officers from several agencies, and then deported.

“The local angst is that our relatives cannot come and stay with us because they happen to be Pakistani nationals — and people who violate the laws are welcome,” said Manvendra Singh.

“Action should be taken against the engineers, and those who abetted and concealed the crime,” Singh said.

Hindustan Times met with some of the Chinese engineers, who arrived in Barmer on December 7. The men, employees of the Chinese government-owned Dongfang Electric Corporation in Chengdu city, seemed confused and cagey.

“We are here to do our work. If the government decides we should stay here, we will,” said an engineer speaking through an interpreter. “And if it is decided that we should not stay, we shall leave.”