Kailash Mansarovar Yatra–New Route Through Sikkim Commences
June 18, 2015 became a memorable and momentous day in the contemporary history of Sikkim which joined the main stream of nation as 22nd State on May 16, 1975. The Ridge Garden, famous landmark on top of state capital which saw the previous event as also spate of activities during the famed Silk Route days, witnessed the joint flagging off of two buses (carrying 20 pilgrims each to Mount Kailash and Mansarovar) by Sri Shriniwas Patil, Governor of Sikkim and Sri Pawan Chamling, the CM of peaceful & happening state of Sikkim. A Commemorative Special Postal Cover by the Department of Indian Post was released to mark the occasion. Prior to flag off, release of colourful balloons by the chief guests and soothing blowing of conch (Sankh) by young Hindu priests and similar action by the Buddhist Lamas with butter lamps & prayer flags of five shades in tow, added the needed colour and flavour to the long awaited ceremony. Both the priests and performing artists with ethnic musical instruments belonging to three main communities impressed a disciplined gathering of 5000 persons, representing the Government and the Non-Government sectors, alike.
Rather, the experience of half an hour simply mesmerised the tourists & pilgrims, many of whom were visiting this beautiful part of country for the first time. The Singhi Chaam (Snow Lion Dance) and Yak Dance not only stole the show but also set the ball rolling. Bonhomie prevailed all over. The weather, which was inclement for a month, including early morning downpour (leading to blockage of NH10 highway to Gangtok), cleared up when it was time “to fire the shots”. Though Sun did not come out or went up clearly, yet the whole planned process had a smooth sailing. Sri Motilal Lakhotia (88 yrs) and one or two others of pre 1962 Nathula trade days together with traders connected to the post July 6, 2006 trade route were conspicuous by their presence. After all, the small and beautiful state of Sikkim was celebrating its “ethnic & trade connection with China” event after nine years. A fresh round of international trade had been resumed w.e.f. July 6, 2015 at an altitude of 14,400 ft, following several rounds of talks, after a gap of 42 years. Though temperature on last occasion was in the range of minus 5 to minus 3, in Gangtok, it was a pleasant 14 degree.
The absence of the PM or the External Affairs Minister or for that matter, even a Junior Secretary level officer of MEA, MHA or DoNER on this historic day was very much felt. The Chief Minister did not forget to mention it in his speech in a chaste, sanskritised Hindi. Nonetheless, he expressed his gratitude to the PM for acceding to this long pending demand within a year of his taking over. He hinted that with the dynamism and speed of the PM, more optimistic days will be ahead for brightening the prospects of an organic, crime free and poverty free State of Sikkim. He went on to add that the state was a peaceful one with communal harmony and having been adjudged as a “Nirmal” state and received accolades for its rural development, tourism initiatives and environment conservation efforts.
In view of significance of the occasion, he indicated that Hindus, Buddhists and all others were living in unison, as there was no discrimination according to the traditional Varna system. The statues of Guru Padmasambhava at Samdruptse, Lord Buddha at Ravangla and creation of Chaar Dham (having replicas of 4 Dhams and 14 Jyotirlingams) at Solophok, exemplify the level of religious tolerance. Therefore, he asked the first batch of pilgrims to visit some of them on their return through Sherathang after 19 days. He also promised them a few “organic gifts” on return. Reference or expected respect to Jai Bhole Nath (Lord Shiva), the presiding deity of Mt. Kailash, was the common chord in the deliberations of both the CM and the Governor. This was also heard loudly when actual flag off materlised. Earlier the day began with offering of prayers and butter lamps together with plantation of saplings by the dignitaries and presentation of mementoes & scarves to the yatris, who not only felt elated & cheerful but expressed the same as well, in a candid way.
Talking of facts and figures, the per capita expenditure on the new route will be in the range of Rs. 1.7 Lakhs for a journey of 2800 kms with stretches between Delhi & Bagdogra having 1200 kms and the stretch- Bagdogra—Gangtok—Nathula—Kangma—Laji—Jongba – Mansarovar involving a distance of 1585 kms with one halt each at Gangtok, fifteenth Mile, and Sherathang on India side. The yatra, may also require a trekking of 26 kms in addition to 19 kms of parikrama of Mt. Kailash. All said and done, the new route is likely to be a very attractive and relieving proposition, especially for the senior citizens or those belonging to relatively young age group but not in a position to take the rigours of trekking through Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand. A question will always linger on, whether the KMY will succeed in view of passage involved through a very high altitude region (nearly 19,000 ft) and not very certain or shall we say, fluctuating attitude of China. It also remains to be seen as to when the number of pilgrims ultimately would be scaled to 1000 to 1400 every year, so that a number of people from Sikkim could also take advantage. The recent experience of re-opening of International trade route in this sector has shown that it is not easy to up-grade the infrastructure vis-a- vis the speed of China and that the gains and losses also will have to be assessed carefully, more so, in view of increasing involvement of India and China in BRICKS affairs.
Will the Government of China attach KMY the same importance as being attached to it, in future as well? Or will it meet the same fate as Nathula International Trade Route which has just seen Rs 15 Crore worth of export and Rs 1 Crore worth of import up to the year 2014 in a period of 8 years, of which one year was a zero trade year. The attitude of China of not revising the permitted items of trade, considering an increase in value of daily trade by an individual trader or of not sticking to the agreed conditions in an agreement also, may have to be under close watch, review and scrutiny. Let us hope, nevertheless, for bright and optimistic days, if not only for bolstering the prospects of tourism in Sikkim but definitely for further improvement in Sino- Indian relations through the trade and tourism route. The red letter day that June 18, 2015 was, is expected to further boost the current “Act East Policy”, based on earlier advocated “Look East Policy”.
(The author is a senior IAS Officer. His views are personal )
By Alok Kumar Shrivastava