The end of Shangrila
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 31 Dec , 2010

As the year comes to a close, one could ask: What was the most depressing news during 2010? There were so many contenders for this description — from the shoddy preparations for the Commonwealth Games and the several financial irregularities surrounding the event to the different ‘G’ scams; the increasing criminalisation of politics to the renewed terrorist and Maoist threats. There is, indeed, no dearth of choice.

However, there is something which has passed largely unnoticed and which is bad news for India: It is the new road to Metok, north of Arunachal Pradesh. It has worrisome implications for the country. As China’s Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in India for purportedly important talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, CCTV of China showed several videos of a new tunnel (and soon a road) reaching Metok (or Motuo as the Chinese pronounce the word), the most remote area in southern Tibet. Metok is located a few kilometres north of the McMahon Line which separates India from China.

There is something which has passed largely unnoticed and which is bad news for India: It is the new road to Metok, north of Arunachal Pradesh. It has worrisome implications for the country.

Though ignored by media, this event is bound to have incalculable consequences for the border defences as well as the future flow of Brahmaputra. According to the CCTV report, “For the people of Motuo County in Tibet, the 4,700 metre-high Galongla mountain is a formidable barrier to enter or leave. And it’s a massive challenge for the construction workers tunneling from both ends to create a passageway.”

Chen, a Chinese construction worker, told CCTV: “When the tunnel breaks through, we are going to have tears, laughter and bear hugs to express our setbacks and solidarity.” Bu Qiong, the only Tibetan armed police soldier on the site, said, “The Motuo is an isolated island on the plateau and is the only county in China with no vehicle access. The people in Motuo desire lots of goods, and they have to carry them by back from outside, walking. We hope that we get this tunnel finished as fast as we can, so the people of Motuo can leave easily and outsiders can enter the county to enjoy the beautiful scenery.”

Perhaps it is true that Metok was the last county with no highway link in China. But who can believe that all these efforts are only for the welfare and benefit of a population of 11,000 people?

Located in the south-eastern part of Tibet, the 117-km Metok Highway will link the Indian border to National Highway 318 which, starting from Shanghai, runs across the provinces of Zhejiang, Anhui, Hubei, Chongqing (municipality) and Sichuan before entering eastern Tibet through Litang, Batang, Markan and Bomi, before continuing unto Lhasa and ending at the Nepal border (Zhangmu).

CCTV gave more details on the road that is being built: “Once completed, (the tunnel) will be over 3.3 km long, cutting 24 km from the original rugged mountain road. Meanwhile, 29 bridges and 227 culverts will be constructed. The highway negotiates the complicated terrain of the Grand Yalunzangpo (Brahmaputra) gorge. The drop between the highest and the lowest point is over 3,100 metres. (Now) people have to cross more than six rivers before approaching Motuo County.”

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The new road, costing $150 million, will join the Roof of the World’s strategic axis at Bomi by 2012. Xinhua has affirmed that the tunnel “will shorten the time dramatically as the journey through the tunnel will take just half-an-hour”, adding that “90 km of highway between the end of the tunnel and Metok County, in Nyingchi Prefecture, is yet to be built”. Nyingchi town, which is located some 200 km from Bomi, is already served by one of the largest airports in Tibet. It can annually cater for lakhs of tourists attracted by the gorges of Brahmaputra.

Contrary to India, China thinks in terms of the “˜dual use for its infrastructure”¦ infrastructure projects such as airports and railways should be designed to also serve war-time needs.

The Chinese media has, however, forgotten important ‘details’ while reporting the opening of the tunnel. The place is so remote that for centuries no one knew if the mighty Brahmaputra was flowing towards South-East Asia like Mekong or Irrawaddy to Burma… or to India? During the 19th century, the British thought that the best way to ‘conquer’ the sub-continent was to map it; they were, however, left with this enigma. The Great Trigonometrical Survey, the ancestor of the Survey of India often sent ‘locals’ (they called them ‘pundits’) for surveying these remote Himalayan areas. One of these ‘pundits’ was Kintup, alias KP, a native of Sikkim. He travelled to Tibet to chart the course of Yarlung Tsangpo.

KP could not reach Metok, but tried to throw marked logs down the stream of Tsangpo and see if they would reach India. Unfortunately, nobody got his message and when he returned to Assam in 1884 (after four years on the mountain tracks), Yarlung Tsangpo and Brahmaputra were still two different rivers. It is only several years later that the Survey found some of the logs in Bengal and that KP became famous.

For Tibetans, it is one of the most pristine regions of their country. They consider the area around the ‘Great Bend’ of Brahmaputra as the home of Goddess Dorjee Pagmo, Tibet’s ‘Protecting Deity’. Many believe that Pemakoe is the sacred realm often referred to in their scriptures: the last hidden Shangrila. It is also said that the great Indian tantric master, Padmasambhava, visited the place during the eighth century and tamed the local spirits to conceal scriptures for future generations.

The region unlike other parts of Tibet receives plenty of rain and within the Great Bend area one finds the rarest species of flora and fauna. Though not yet fully documented, the Chinese authorities admit that the region is home for more than 60 per cent of the biological resources of Tibet.

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But the particularly bad news for India is that the engineers who have worked for the northward diversion of the waters of Yarlung Tsangpo across hundreds of kilometres of mountainous regions to China’s north-western provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu, have planned the main hydropower plant in Metok area. The gorges of Brahmaputra can provide one of the greatest hydropower potentials available in the world. For South Asia and more particularly for India, the enormity of the scheme and its closeness to the Indian border cannot be ignored. It will of course be a political decision, but the new road makes it now practically conceivable. The road will not only trigger the disappearance of one of the last sacred places of this planet, but will also have strategic and military consequences for India.

Contrary to India, China thinks in terms of the ‘dual use’ for its infrastructure. Mr Xi Jinping, the future party boss (he takes over in 2012) is a great supporter of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s theory of “the synthesis between the requirements of peacetime and war.” For Mao, civilian sectors had always a major role to play in military preparedness. For example, infrastructure projects such as airports and railways should be designed to also serve war-time needs.

Some years ago, when Mr Xi Jinping was party secretary of Zhejiang province, he had said, “We must implement (Mao’s) strategic concept of the ‘unity between soldiers and civilians’ and both the Army and regional civilian authorities should assiduously pool our resources in the preparation for military struggle against China’s enemies.” The new road will clearly serve more purposes than is being claimed.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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