Addressing migration through the revival of historical trade routes in Himalaya

krittika uniyal migration himalaya

Krittika Uniyal

China is the leading trade partner of India, the fourth chief export destination, and the biggest import source. Being two of the principal economies in Asia, trade relations hold the utmost significance in their bilateral affiliation. Even though both the countries share a large portion of their precincts, the treacherous and vindictive Himalayas act more as an impediment than the shortest link between the two.

This was not always the case, historically the terrains across the Himalayas were efficiently linked through well-established route, connecting and linking numerous economic hubs across the continent. Traditionally, there were twelve itinerary linking different western Himalayan regions to Lhasa in Tibet, also in the east, the tea and horse road popularly known as the Southern silk road linked southwest China to India and Central Asia. These routes were not only limited to facilitating trade but were the spine of numerous livelihood support activities for the mountain communities, as agriculture alone wasn’t adequate. Consequently, the communities on the way had greater economic, cultural, and religious barter. With time the countries underwent a political transformation, and the mountains were no longer seen as economically advantageous. The government authorities were more focused towards other regions that were topographically accessible and therefore easier to develop. The Indo-Sino war along with the reconstruction of economic interactions among the newly independent countries disrupted the life of the mountain communities leading to a point of complete closure of all historical trade routes. Thus, the trade on land was now permitted officially only through the Lipu Lekh (Uttarakhand), Shipki la (Himachal Pradesh) and the Nathu la Passes (Sikkim). It’s astonishing to see that currently, the majority of the trade between India and China takes place through the sea routes crossing the Straits of Malacca, which is highly expensive and cumbersome.

Today, the mountain communities across the Indian Himalayas face greater challenges and are among the least developed in the South Asian region, the core of all the current problems in the region rests on the lack of adequate livelihood opportunities. Most of the modern day development has taken place in the other regions, apex educational and healthcare institutions are positioned there, leading to more employment opportunities and finally a better standard of living for the people. Many mountain migrants are men who leave behind women, children and elderly which ultimately add to the phenomenon of ghost villages. Alongside the emotional mayhem linked to separation from their native land, the mountain communities migrate to urban centers that often already face high population pressure. These migration problems have taken a shape of tragedy in the already sparsely populated mountain region.

In 2014, China proposed the idea of the Trans-Himalayan Economic Corridor set on the lines of historical trade routes, linking China, Nepal, and India, as a part of broadening China’s Silk Road project. Subsequently, in 2017 China and Nepal while preparing for this mega project, agreed to hasten their implementation of the memorandum of understanding on economic cooperation. India still hasn’t accepted China’s offer, even though it may help in addressing the challenges in the Himalayan sub-region and the Ganges basin posed by human mobility, poverty, mass unemployment and massive underemployment of human capital. Although China-India relations have kept up a decent energy, for the most part, India’s inhibitions with the project are largely linked to security challenges.

This project will open doors to new opportunities and it will be intriguing to witness if the said corridor helps in addressing the key challenge of migration in the mountains across the member countries. Such projects are perfect tools for sub-regional co-operation through devolution of responsibility and authority to local bodies and communities. Establishment of a permanent international trade transit will undoubtedly bring proficient connectivity across the borders. The success of the project, of course, depends on the effectiveness of mountain-specific investments and policies which can alleviate the harsh living conditions of mountain communities, increase mountain communities’ well-being which will invariably slow out-migration trends from mountain areas. To bring out the best, the markets must be integrated and supported by financial cooperation, local governments, and banks. Containing mountain population to the mountains has never been on the prime agenda, this can now easily be facilitated through international diplomacy. Reviving the mentioned ancient trade routes will give a new ray of hope to the communities that were the first to be affected by the closure of these routes. This can be seen as a golden opportunity to revive the verve of the mountains and the mountain communities. The advantages of participating in the trilateral economic cooperation are far more for India, hence the lure of excessive economic gains may take precedence over other factors which are holding it back.

*Krittika Uniyal, hold a Masters degree in Politics with (specialization in International Relations) from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Her interest on the issue of human mobility and social change and worked at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) Nepal. Currently studying at Yunnan University, Kunming China.