Long Read: Ladakh's Decision To Scrap Permit System For Tourists Is A Response To China's Border Consolidation Project In Tibet

Prakhar Gupta

Sep 03, 2021, 03:24 PM | Updated Sep 04, 2021, 03:40 PM IST

An advisory for tourists in eastern Ladakh.
An advisory for tourists in eastern Ladakh.
  • With unprecedented infrastructure buildup along the frontiers by the Border Roads Organisation and revision of guidelines for the Border Area Development Programme, it is clear that India is trying to create an effective response to China's border consolidation project in Tibet.
  • On 6 August, India announced the completion of the disengagement process in Gogra, one of the many friction points in eastern Ladakh where the Indian Army was locked in a standoff with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) since May last year. The announcement almost completely overshadowed the other development in Ladakh the same day, one that may be equally important, if not more, when it comes to pushing back Chinese effort to incrementally salami-slice territory and present India with a fait accompli.

    With a notification issued on 6 August, the Administration of Ladakh removed Inner Line Permit (ILP) requirement for Indian citizens to visit the protected areas in the Union Territory. This move will make access easier for domestic tourists to areas close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), like Man and Merak on the south bank of Pangong Tso, Chushul and other villages near the Kailash Range, which India occupied in August 2020 to preempt China, and parts of south-east Ladakh — Nyoma, Hanle, Tso Moriri, etc.

    The demand to allow growth in Ladakh's tourism economy may appear to be the most obvious driver of this change, but that is not the case. Given the context in which this development comes — unprecedented deployment of troops, ongoing talks on disengagement and no movement on de-escalation, it may have a security-linked rationale, and boosting tourism may just be a means to that end.

    The change in Ladakh appears to have been triggered by China's effort to consolidate border areas along the Indian frontier since 2017, a project that has received consistent attention from the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including President Xi Jinping himself.

    Xi's Border Consolidation Project

    Just days after the conclusion of the CCP’s 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi replied to a letter written to him by two sisters from a Tibetan herder family — a rare response to the flood of correspondence received by the Chinese leader.

    In his reply, Xi praised the family’s effort to “protect Chinese territory”, exhorted them to continue to defend the “sacred homeland”, and called on more herders to put down roots in the frozen soil of the border areas “like galsang flowers” and become the “guardians of Chinese territory”.

    “Your home is Yumai, and your country is China. Grazing and guarding the border is your duty,” the Chinese President wrote back, adding, “We will safeguard every blade of grass and tree on the motherland’s border well”.

    Xi did not mention the threat the border had to be safeguarded from. That part had been taken care of by the head of the village when, in 2015, he said, “Yumai would be occupied by India already if the family [which the two herders who wrote to Xi belonged to] had decided to leave”.

    The letter and Xi’s response to it was most likely part of a choreographed exercise — the story of the ‘two Tibetan sisters who saved the homeland’ was to serve as a model for China's border villages programme.

    (Also Read: Xi Jinping’s ‘July 1 Medal’ For Tibetan Herder Brings Focus Back On China’s Border Defence Villages Along Indian Frontier)

    In the speech delivered at the 19th Party Congress before he wrote back to the herders, just weeks after the end of the standoff with India in Bhutan's Doklam, Xi had dropped hints of what was to come as he mentioned “border areas” and “minorities” multiple times, promising to “accelerate development in the border areas, and ensure their stability and security”.

    "We will encourage and guide people with talent to work in remote poor areas, border areas with mainly ethnic minority populations," Xi said.

    Later that year, the local CCP apparatus in Tibet launched a programme to build “well-off villages in border areas” under which at least 628 villages were to be built along the frontier with India and Bhutan.

    The CCP has made no secret of the construction of villages along the Himalayan frontier or the aim it wants to achieve.

    “This is to implement … the central policies of improving support to border residents, stabilising and consolidating the border,” the Chinese plan says.

    In 2018, Zhuang Yan, deputy secretary of the Party Committee of Tibet, reiterated the plan, saying border villages were being developed to ensure "consolidation of border areas and border security".

    The attention to the programme has only intensified amid tensions along the LAC since May 2020, when the ongoing standoff in eastern Ladakh began.

    In August 2020, only a few weeks after the clashes in Galwan left 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers dead, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rare visit "to the border areas of Tibet for field investigations on border infrastructure and construction of well-off villages".

    More recently, during a visit to Tibet this year, which started in the town of Nyingchi — close to the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh, President Xi said "it is necessary to strengthen the construction of border infrastructure, and encourage people of all ethnic groups to take root in the border, guard the country and build their hometowns".

    "Strengthen the border areas, do a good job in the four major issues of stability, development, ecology and strong borders," he added.

    Since the launch of the project in 2017, most of the 628 border villages have been built, some in Indian and Bhutanese territory.

    Jiagang Village in Rutog County of Ngari Prefecture near the Line of Actual Control.
    Jiagang Village in Rutog County of Ngari Prefecture near the Line of Actual Control.

    To convince Tibetans to move to these villages, the CCP has invested in infrastructure such as roads, railways and power grid. Around 30.1 billion yuan or nearly $4.6 billion were earmarked in 2017 for the construction of new homes and infrastructure for transport, energy, water and communication and facilities for education and healthcare.

    Apart from spending billions on infrastructure development, China has used economic incentives, including annual subsidies going up to 12,000 yuan ($1,800), to get reluctant Tibetans to move to border villages.

    China has employed nomadic communities living along the Himalayan frontier in Tibet, like herders, through persuasion and coercion, to strengthen its territorial claims in eastern Ladakh and northern Bhutan. Nomads are dispatched with their herds of goats, sheep and yak to settle in these territories — pasturelands across the border which their ancestors may have had access to — by establishing a permanent presence there and forcing Indian and Bhutanese herders to abandon these areas through the tactics prescribed by the CCP.

    The CCP is also aggressively pushing tourism to the frontier areas of Tibet, a project made possible by the rapid development of dual-use infrastructure along the border over the last two decades.

    In Nyingchi, for example, tourist arrivals have gone up sharply in the last few years with the construction of an airport in Mainling (where Xi landed for his Tibet visit), located only 15 kilometres away from Tibet's border with Arunachal, and the opening of a 450-km-long railway line linking the border town to Lhasa in June this year. In the last five years, Nyingchi has received over 32 million tourist trips, and revenue from tourism stands at 24 billion yuan ($3.69 billion).

    Tourism is a critical piece of the CCP's larger plan for Tibet's border areas. It was little surprise when Xi, during his Tibet visit this year, stopped at Galai, a village that has ushered in "spring for Tibetan tourism" and now serves as a model for the border tourism project. The village famous for its "peach blossoms" has become "prosperous through rural tourism".

    The project has turned border villages into new tourist hotspots and herders into hoteliers. Earnings from tourism — as high as 100,000 yuan ($15,000) in a season in some cases — act as an incentive.

    Such incentives, including state subsidies, help the local apparat in "repopulating the area with residents from other areas" who then "take the responsibilities of patrolling the border by herding livestock." In some cases, residents are dispatched for border patrols "at least once a month," and it takes "a week for them to make a complete tour".

    China's efforts seem to be working — population of border areas has grown by 10.5 per cent (population of border counties grew to 485,000 by 2020), Wu Yingjie, the Communist Party secretary for Tibet, revealed in August, at an event marking the 70th anniversary of the "peaceful liberation of Tibet". In the 21 border counties of Tibet, the per capita disposable income of rural residents has "reached 14,000 yuan in 2020, a year-on-year increase of 12.7 per cent".

    By the time China completes the current phase of the border villages programme, it would have moved over 240,000 people to the frontier.

    The border consolidation project will not conclude with the completion of this programme. China's 14th Five Year Plan, covering the years 2021-2025, promises to "speed up the construction of border villages" and build "about 200 new villages" along the frontiers. Large infrastructure projects for Tibet, such as "hydropower development on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river" (the Brahmaputra in India) and highway from "Medog to the Yunnan-Tibet boundary" (just north of Arunachal) underline continued focus on border areas.

    India's Ghost Villages

    While China settles new residents in the border areas, villages on the Indian side of the frontier have seen unprecedented out-migration.

    In Uttarakhand, for example, over 185 villages in three districts bordering Tibet — Uttarkashi, Chamoli and Pithoragarh, were added to the list of "completely depopulated" or "ghost" villages in seven years between 2011 and 2018. Nine of these villages are located within an aerial distance of 5 km from the boundary.

    Abandoned buildings in Uttrakhand's Martoli village. (@prshntsingh920/Twitter)
    Abandoned buildings in Uttrakhand's Martoli village. (@prshntsingh920/Twitter)

    In Himachal Pradesh, the two districts bordering China — Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur — witnessed a decline in the population between 2001 and 2011. Lahaul-Spiti district, the larger of the two, reported a negative decadal growth rate of population at -5 per cent.

    The situation in the border areas of Ladakh, which were already sparsely populated, is not very different from Uttarakhand.

    The rural-to-urban migration of nomadic pastoralists from eastern Ladakh to Leh and beyond, due to rapidly shrinking pastures and lack of other economic opportunities, has lead to the thinning of Indian presence essential to buttress territorial claims on the ground. For instance, the out-migration of pastoral communities from Korzak, Rupshu and Kharank has reduced the Indian footprint in the pasturelands in Chumur (in south-east Ladakh), parts of which China lays claim to, has occupied in the past and regularly transgresses into.

    Communities in the Himalayan belt have played a key part in upholding Indian sovereignty in far-flung, vulnerable areas along the boundary. Nomadic groups in these regions have often been the first to alert the security forces about Chinese activities, safeguarding territory sacred to their culture and crucial for the survival of their livestock.

    Local populations have been an obstacle to China's salami-slicing strategy of gradually occupying contested territory along the LAC, so much so that the Chinese have resorted to aggressive tactics, such as coercion, to drive them away in places where they have not already migrated from.

    For example, in Ladakh's Nyoma block, which borders Tibet, nomads have been repeatedly threatened by Chinese soldiers, who have "warned them against grazing" in the area. Last year, when some Chinese soldiers in civilian clothing crossed into Indian territory in the same area and tried to push back nomads and their livestock grazing in the area, they were forced to go back across the LAC by the locals, who also informed the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

    But large scale out-migration from the Himalayan belt on the Indian side has created space for China to assert its territorial claims. The removal of ILP requirement for domestic tourists coming to Ladakh is one way of arresting this trend, and possibly reversing it in the future.

    How Tourism Will Help

    The move is aimed at maintaining a permanent Indian presence in remote areas, and facilitating more tourist arrivals will help in two ways.

    One, the increase in tourist arrivals will create sustained opportunities for the locals, which will stave off out-migration due to economic reasons and may even act as a motivation for reverse migration. In 2018, the Rural Development and Migration Commission of Uttarakhand reached the same conclusion after a study in the state's hill districts.

    "..more than 50 per cent of out-migration [from villages in hill districts of Uttarakhand] occurred for employment," the study found.

    Two, it will lead to investment in infrastructure and the creation of permanent settlements in far-flung areas in the form of housing and businesses to cater to the increase in the number of tourists in Ladakh.

    ILP requirement inhibits the development of tourism, which is one of the few ways of creating a sustained revenue stream for locals. In Uttarakhand's Nelong Valley (China claims the valley of Jadh Ganga), for instance, only 24 domestic tourists are allowed in a day and they are not permitted to stay at night, while foreign tourists are barred from entering altogether. As a result, only 400 to 450 tourists visit Nelong valley every year. No wonder the two villages in the valley, Nelong and Jadong, have been abandoned since the 1962 war.

    Abandoned village of Jadong in Nilong. (@alok_bhatt/Twitter)
    Abandoned village of Jadong in Nilong. (@alok_bhatt/Twitter)

    The effort to use tourism to reverse depopulation in border areas is not limited to Ladakh. In April this year, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Bipin Rawat said Indian Army was working on a proposal to do away with inner-line restrictions in Uttarakhand. This statement from the CDS came after the state government, in meetings with Home Minister Amit Shah, sought the withdrawal of inner-line permit system in districts bordering China.

    Opening up border areas for tourism is also not the only way India is responding to this challenge. Uttarakhand had identified 100 villages along the frontier for development as model villages. Similarly, Arunachal, in its annual budget, earlier this year, announced that it will construct three model villages along the border with Tibet as a pilot project, with plans to expand the programme to more border villages in the future.

    When seen in light of other recent developments — unprecedented infrastructure buildup along the frontiers by the Border Roads Organisation and revision of guidelines for the Border Area Development Programme, it becomes clear that India is trying to create an effective response to China's border consolidation project in Tibet.

    Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.