The signing of the tripartite agreement to set up the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration has opened up the possibility of resuming trade through Jelep-la, a pass close to Kalimpong on the India-China border that was last used nearly 50 years ago.
The hope brews all the more as the agreement states that the GTA will take up the issue with the Centre and the state, once it is in place.
“Jelep-la (easy pass in Tibetan) was the preferred pass since, unlike Nathu-la, its gradient is not so steep making it easier to negotiate even during the winter months. I am certain once it is opened, it will be a thriving trade route and help rejuvenate the long dormant economic activity in Kalimpong,” said a member of the Public Grievances Redressal and Welfare Society, Kalimpong. The society has long been lobbying for the reopening of border trade.
At 14,500ft, Jelep-la is 100 feet higher than Nathu-la and 160km from Kalimpong. But the distance from Siliguri to Jelep-la is 235km. From Siliguri, the Sikkim pass is 15km further away, a significant difference in the hilly terrain.
Trade through the all-weather route, unlike the Nathu-la that remains closed during winters, had once turned Kalimpong into a major trade hub. Jelep-la was an important pass for export and import from India till the Chinese aggression in 1962. Kalimpong was the main station for dumping commodities brought from Tibet and also for packaging and re-shipment of export commodities from India to Tibet.
“While mostly raw wool and silver coins came from Tibet, just about everything was exported from here,” said a veteran of the Indo-Tibetan trade through Jelep-la who still owns a shop at 10th Mile, which used to be the main trading centre then.
The Kalimpong Chamber of Commerce (KCC) said it would welcome any move to reopen the Jelep-la trade route.
“The closure of Jelep-la has severely impacted the local economy. The trade route is far more feasible than Nathu-la. However, more items should be allowed from Tibet through the point (than it was earlier) to make it economically viable in today’s context,” said a member of the KCC.
Trade through Jelep-la had started way back in 1871, but inland business flourished after Colonel Young Husband’s visit to Tibet via Kalimpong in 1904, when the route started functioning as a full-fledged passage for exchange of goods.
Following improvement in the ties between colonial India and Tibet, a British agent was stationed at Shigatse in Tibet for the purpose of transit.
In fact, former Darjeeling MP Dawa Narbula had also raised the issue of Jelep-la in Parliament while the KCC had submitted a memorandum to Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then prime minister, during his visit to Gangtok in 2004. A memorandum had also been submitted to Pranab Mukherjee when he had come to Kalimpong as the finance minister in 2008.
Even current Darjeeling MP Jaswant Singh has strongly advocated for the opening of the Silk Route.
Singh had earlier told The Telegraph that the quest for peace and amity with neighboring countries could not be treated like “traffic lights”.
“It cannot be treated like traffic lights, stop, go, green, amber, red. It has to be a constant effort…We must permit free movement of goods and encourage as much trade as possible,” said Singh. “We would very seriously consider the opening of Jelep-la.”
The tripartite agreement states that the GTA will take up the matter of reopening the trade route through the Jelep-la with the state and the Centre soon after the body comes into existence.
“Easy access from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) through Jelep-la will eventually make it more popular with Chinese traders wanting to reach the ports in Calcutta or Bangladesh. Besides trade, the opening of the Jelep-la route is likely to provide a boost to the tourism industry in the region,” said Pempahishey.
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