Incursions via smuggling: Standoff between India & China hits trade of locals
The historical tracks that link Ladakh to the main Silk Route did not shut down after India and China officially sealed the borders.
Unlike the popular perception in mainland India, the historical tracks that link Ladakh to the main Silk Route did not shut down after India and China officially sealed the borders. Instead, eastern Ladakh is known as one of the most active smuggling points in Jammu and Kashmir.
Thupstan Wangchuk, who represents eastern Ladakh town of Nyoma in Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, says that while illegal trade continues for most of the year, the main trading season is winter.
"At the peak of the winter in January and February, Chinese and Tibetan traders set up a huge market at Dumtsele where people go and barter," he says.
"Locals purchase a lot of things from this market - blankets, quilts, flasks, crockery, cigarettes, kitchenware, footwear and electronic items, and it is a major source of income for a lot many people," he adds.
What do they give in return? The Chinese mostly seek cooking oils and even medicines, says Wangchuk. Some locals say most smuggled items are brought to Leh's Moti market where improved tourist arrival is driving up demand every summer.
Wangchuk says Chinese thermo-flasks are a craze in the high-altitude desert. "You can imagine the volume because every third home in India has this Chinese flask."
The Chinese army controls Dumtsele- 20 km from Kuyul where the current confrontation is happening - since the last couple of years. That hasn't affected the trade. Even the current standoff, while making things difficult, has not shut down the trade.
For people living in these tough mountain terrains, smuggling is a way of life. "Who will stop it and why?" says a local who introduces himself as Namgiyal. "The border is so huge that we can't even have dogs to patrol them. Soldiers appear only when there is a crisis," he adds.
The practical impossibility of manning such a long and treacherous line of control, which security officials confirm, is one of the several factors abetting the illegal trade.
After all, the trade has been happening there for ages. Only recently it became illegal. It's only natural that many locals call for the roads be opened for trade.
"We have a common language and culture," says P Namgyal, a former lawmaker from the region who demands that the Tibet route - know locally as the Damchok road - be reopened. "The closure of Sinkiyang (Leh-Damchok-Tibet) road after the 1962 war has literally suffocated us," he says.
Opening the route would also help Leh attract many Indian pilgrims going on Kailash-Mansarovar yatra because the base camp for Mount Kailash is barely 250 km from Damchok. Delhi is also keen to use this route as an alternative access to the pilgrimage centre because the existing route can be dangerous. More than 200 pilgrims were buried under a landslide in 1998 at Malpa near Lipulekh pass.
Also, Damchok was widely expected to be a fourth formal trading window between India and China. During the 1990s, Delhi and Beijing agreed to have border trading posts at Shipkila in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, and Gunji in Uttaranchal. And in 2003, the two sides opted for a third at Nathu La in Sikkim. Damchok's turn is yet to come.
But security agencies are concerned about the illegal trade. Owing to the presence of a number of security agencies keen to keep track of the developments, the smuggling is directly or indirectly abetted for spying, says a police officer who served in the area.
In November 2009, four arrests were made in the region for attempted smuggling of about 90 kg of endangered caterpillar mushroom insects, used for the manufacture of Chinese medicines. These sell for around Rs 10 lakh per kg. The local smugglers were trying to cross the border through the frozen Indus river. A month later, police recovered 50 tonnes of red sanders, a fragrant timber in huge demand for cabinetwork and dyewood, from Shey hamlet in the outskirts of Leh. The smugglers had brought this timber all the way down from Andhra Pradesh, but were caught well before they could cross the border.
After being proposed in 1962, the customs and central excise department started running a customs preventive station (CPS) at Nyoma from 2002. SK Khatana, assistant commissioner in-charge of the station, says the Indo-Tibetan Border Police is deployed on the frontiers. "They seize the material and hand over to us," he says. Last year, they had five seizures. "Most of it takes place in winter when the Indus freezes," Khatana says.