Sikkim traders upbeat over Nathu La reopening

Rajeev Mishra of Rajeev Electronics, whose family entered the Tibet trade in 1917, recalls that in the ‘50s his family warehouse in Kalimpong would at any given time have some 22 rooms full of watches, their specialty. For the old traders of Gangtok, the decision to reopen the trade-route at Gangtok has come as a windfall.

But taken quite by surprise, even the old hands of Gangtok now admit that much has changed over the past three decades. Mishra, who deals in electronic goods now, for example, knows that he will not be able sell watches or radios to the Chinese any more. “I would be a fool to think that I could do so. One reason why electronic goods are cheaper nowadays is because they are all manufactured in China,” he says. That, however, will not deter him from taking the plunge. “My father speaks fluent Tibetan. We still have contacts in Tibet with the people he traded with. Should trade resume, all we have to do is revive these contacts. I have even updated my import-export licence in anticipation of resumption of trade,” he says.

Others, like Motilal Lakhotia, managing director of the Sikkim-Tibet Trading Company, however, have succeeded in preempting the recent developments. So much so that Lakhotia, one of those who rode the track to Lhasa, had his company registered in Lhasa two years back, when talk of reestablishing the trade route seem to initially gather momentum. “Of course we will trade with Tibet. Why do you think I never changed the name of my company,” he says, having travelled to the neighbouring country some time back to recce the market.

Not to mention the nostalgia. Khatri, who has left the business decision on his sons, is excited about the prospect travelling to Tibet once again. “I might not be so keen on the trade part. That’s for my sons to decide, but will definitely want to visit Tibet and see how things have changed and what my old business colleagues are up to,” he says.

According to Mishra the supplies that make it to Lhasa through Kathmandu will definitely shift to Sikkim now. And just how much how does Sikkim gain? “We will gain if we can get into the transport and warehouse sector,” says Mishra. That, in fact, has been Sikkim’s traditional source of earning from the silk route. “People made fortunes just supplying grass to the mules. Others earned in lakhs supplying mules and muleteers and many made profit renting out their godowns,” says Lakhotia. Lakhotia’s company supplied some 10,000 bicycles to Tibet in the past. In the present situation, though, the money would be in providing the trucks, fuel and storage facilities. “The bigger trucks cannot go beyond Rangpo. So, if the policy-makers make Rangpo the transit point where goods are shifted to smaller trucks run by Sikkim-based transporters and stored in warehouses on the Sikkim side, the State will not need to do much more.”

Kalimpong, despite its place in history as the traditional trading post, has lost out to Sikkim because of its lack of infrastructure, people here feel. Not that every thing is expected to be hunky dory. The trading community here points out that should Sikkim not live up to its expectations, it would risk losing its business to Siliguri, which has developed into a major trading city with direct connections to the North-east, Bengal, Sikkim and even Nepal

By Pema Wangchuk (