Himachal: Not just a tourist place

When we speak of Himachal Pradesh, one inevitably starts thinking about the picturesque landscapes, valleys and swiftly flowing brooks. But, there is another side to Himachal then just being a calm tourist place – it lies next to China and a major chunk of the Indo-China border circumvents its eastern regions.

HIMACHAL MORE THAN A TOURIST PLACE

India through Himachal Pradesh shares a boundary of 220 km with China along Tibet in the tribal districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti. Out of the total border length, 140 km falls in Kinnaur, while the rest 80 km lies in Lahaul and Spiti. The border with China-controlled Tibet in these districts is usually peaceful. But, China is continuously expanding its infrastructure in the tribal districts along the international border. These increasing developments by the Red Army have posed challenges for the Indian forces in securing the porous border that stretches for hundreds of kilometers without any fencing.

Kinnaur recently came in the news when the Indian Air Force (IAF) officials conducted a meeting with the senior state government officials to explore the possibilities of deploying a radar in this eastern hilly district. The defense authorities are keen on establishing a communication facility in Kinnaur and want the government to expedite the radar in the strategically important region.

The proposal was earlier laid down and discussed with the state authorities around three years ago. The state authorities had got the concerned area identified and had moved for obtaining forest clearances as well. But, the whole plan had remained on papers for years.

After the terrorist attacks on the Pathankot air base in Punjab, the Intelligence agencies have decided to establish stricter border control in the proximal states. And now as a follow-up the proposal to install a radar has suddenly acquired urgency.

But why is Kinnaur being given so much importance? There are three major reasons.

First, IAF’s main objective is to keep a closer and much stricter vigil on any possible movements near the Indo-China border in the immediate Indian districts.

Second, The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in the tribal areas of Kinnaur shares the Indo-china border. IAF wants to step up its communication facilities in this region rather than depending on communications from Ambala in Haryana, from where it is presently done.

It has also happened twice in the past years that Chinese helicopters intruded into the Indian air space in Kinnaur and Kaurik in the Spiti valley. And it took a lot of time for the violations to be reported from Ambala to ground zero authorities for the required action. Following this, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) even deployed more battalions to keep a closer vigil on the border.

Third, the Intelligence agencies have continuously been stressing on India to strengthen its communication networks and other infrastructure facilities along the Chinese border lying in Kinnaur. Reason – a highly porous border and a difficult terrain to conduct regular manning operations. The hilly landscape makes it all the more susceptible to illegal smuggling activities across the border.

There have been numerous instances where smugglers have taken the advantage of the porous routes to smuggle rare species of fauna and Chinese goods. In 2009, the police seized two trucks loaded with red sanders near the border. Red sanders is a type of wood endemic to the Eastern Ghats in south India and has a high demand in the Chinese medicinal market. Another material which is usually smuggled by this route is Pashmina wool. It has a very high price in the international market and has always been a popular material. In 2011, trucks laden with Pashmina wool were caught in Pooh subdivision near Nako village which is close to the China border.

The Indian government and especially the state authorities massively lag behind when it comes down to the question of road linkages, air connectivity, and other infrastructure in the border district villages. Whereas, the story is completely reverse just past that invisible fence. Chinese villages have excellent means of land connectivity and communication networks.

Even though the authorities say that they are aware of the infrastructure requirements, their concern seems highly sporadic.

Getting funds from the Centre for such projects is another challenge. Biggest example is the construction of an airport at Rangrik in Spiti valley. The airport (if built) is touted to be of high strategic importance as China is increasingly pacing up its civil and military infrastructure along the border. But, the laidback attitude of all the ruling governments has continued to halt such developmental projects. The 10th Finance Commission in 1995 had given close to Rs 30 crore to Himachal for the construction of this military-cum-domestic airstrip in Spiti and Banikhet in Chamba district. But in 1998, the state government said that Rangrik airport had many technical hurdles which needed time to be sorted out.

If made, the airport will strengthen the strategic network and can boost tourism. It has been over two decades now and still the project is stuck in the pipeline.

Why is it that none of the governments have reacted to the strategic urgency of such an airport? Where did all the allotted funds go? And how does the Home Ministry react to such callous and slow paced administrative conduct because 20 years is hard to explain.

Though in some villages the Indian army has tried to cater to the basic needs of the villagers by providing diesel-run generators in areas where electricity shuts down during snowfalls. But then again, is this the job of the armed forces?

The picture largely remains the same – the border districts need better infrastructure but many villages lying in these strategically important districts still wait for basic means of connectivity to lead a dignified life.

Aarushi is pursuing a postgraduate course in journalism from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. Born and brought up in the metropolis, she is from Palampur and remains deeply rooted to the hills and its cultures.

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