External Affairs

Exploring the Diplomatic Wrangle That Is the Tashigang-Lumla Motorway

While the motorable road connecting Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan remains incomplete, the age-old foot route continues to ferry locals across the border.

Arunachal road, Arunachal Pradesh

The road to nowhere. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Dudunghar, Tawang district, Arunachal Pradesh: Warnings and “good lucks” came in equal measure a day before I set off for Lumla. And with good reason.

“Three months ago, when I visited Lumla, the road from Lumbardung onwards was in a terrible shape; good luck to you!” said my hotel manager in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang.

“I heard BRO (Border Roads Organisation) constructed that road last year, spending Rs 20 crore. When you come back from Lumla, do tell me whether it looked like a road worth that much,” said Lama Lobsang Gyatso, the well-known anti-dam activist.

Lumla is situated about 42 km from Tawang. It is the last sub-division of the Tawang district bordering Bhutan.

The cab driver knew the road was bad from Lumbardung, which is about seven km away from Tawang town. But since he had navigated that road many times, he said there was no need to worry.

What he was looking forward to was “the good road” beyond Lumla. He was talking about the road from Lumla to Dudunghar and then further to Bleteng, which would take me to my destination – the India-Bhutan border.

Though Bhutan has two border crossings – Phuntsholing and Samdrup Jhongkar from West Bengal and Assam respectively – it doesn’t have an official motorable crossing with Arunachal yet, even though it shares a 217-km border.

However, people living on either side of the border are very similar in terms of lifestyle, food habits, language and religious beliefs. The pedestrian route between the countries is centuries old.

As forewarned by Tawang residents, the first real hurdle that we faced on that road to Lumla – mostly unpaved from Lumbardung onwards – was the rush from a waterfall, spilling on to a stretch of the road. After rolling over the road, the water made a sharp drop, making it risky for vehicles to cross.

The hill-hardened cabbie carefully walked on the rocky water bed to check which part of it was more likely to hold the weight of the vehicle before carefully manoeuvring over it.

The road to Lumla near Thyanglang. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

“We have been driving over this for the last three years. People travel from Lumla to Tawang regularly on this road. Ahead, there is a stretch which has water flowing over the road at a far greater speed than this one; the soil has become weak because of it, I have to be more careful there,” the driver said.

When we reached that spot, near Thyanglang, there were vehicles on both sides of the road, waiting for their turn to cross the water which was flowing at a good speed.

Drivers came out, rolled up their trousers and directed each vehicle to safety, giving the impression that this was an everyday affair.

By the time we reached Lumla, a faint drizzle began. It was barely nine in the morning in the cold mountain town, but life was bustling. Lumla is said to be at least 40 minutes ahead of Indian Standard Time.

A chatty Monpa woman fed us puffed-up poories at a roadside eatery, serving it with a potato fry and butter tea – a welcome refreshment after the back-breaking journey.

“You may have seen the iron bridge just before entering Lumla town. It has been put a few days back by the BRO. The existing bridge was getting old, it got swept away by the rain waters. For about a month, we had no motorable links with Tawang,” the affable tea seller, Chuki, told this correspondent.

The nearest centre for medical care “with doctors” for Lumla residents is the Tawang district hospital. “The last month was particularly bad, a lot of people fell sick here,” she said.

By the time we left Lumla, the weather had lifted. Soon the much-awaited “good road” began. The driver relaxed. “See, I told you,” he said, flashing his tobacco-stained teeth and stepping on the accelerator.

The road from Lumla to Dudunghar and then onwards to Bleteng, the last Monpa village bordering Bhutan, was constructed by a private firm in 2015. Neatly paved, the road is still one of the best in the entire district – a luxury in Tawang – though at one stretch it is dangerously slipping off the mountain. The road is certainly a relief from the perennial construction and repair work being carried out by the BRO all across Tawang, with very little progress to show for it.

One part of the road to the Bhutan border is dangerously chipping off the mountain. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

However, hardly any vehicles runs on that road. Seeing ours, the startled villagers in Sazo – squatting on the road – sprung up, asking whose house we wanted to visit. Near Pharmey village, someone hurriedly removed the grain spread out on the road to be sunned. Someone else in Mangnam gaon, who was using it to mix cement with sand to construct a house, wondered how to make way for us quickly. In Bleteng, a family was having lunch sitting on the road.

At one stretch by a mountain, the grass on the sides had grown quite high, thus encroaching on half the road.

“It is not used because it doesn’t go anywhere,” said a guard, matter-of-factly. He was from the Seema Sashastra Bal (SSB) unit posted at the fag end of the road – the gate bordering Bhutan.

The road, indeed, doesn’t go anywhere; it literally hits the bottom of a mountain. For a month, a landslide has blocked it further, about half a km before the mountain begins – the exact point that announces India’s physical border with Bhutan on that side.

In 2012, when construction began, the hope was that it would go to Tashigang, a town in eastern Bhutan, and thereby open on the Indian side at the Darrang district of Assam. The government hoped the road would give a much-needed alternate route to reach Tawang from Assam through Bhutan. Particularly in the winter months, when there is considerable snow at the Sela Pass, and the army has to struggle to keep open the only route to Tawang, and thereby to Bumla, the LAC between India and China.

The present route from Assam’s Tezpur takes about 15 hours to Tawang. The road through Tashigang would have cut the distance by at least 200 km, thus saving about six hours. The best part would have been the lack of snow in winter.

Barely a 15 km stretch on the Bhutan side is yet to be constructed for the road to be usable. However, since 2012, diplomacy between the two countries has been unable to lift that cloud of uncertainty over the fate of that road.

On coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began negotiating with Bhutan, commanding approval from strategic experts who hoped that Indo-Bhutan relations “under major strain”, would show signs of recovery. Modi also sought Bhutan’s cooperation in opening the road. But the diplomatic cloud continues to loom over it.

This past April, at the backdrop of the Assam government’s Namami Brahmaputra festival, union minister of state for home and an MP from Arunachal Pradesh, Kiren Rijiju, and state chief minister Pema Khandu had a closed-door meeting with Bhutanese Prime Minister Tsering Tobgay, where the issue was believed to have been raised too. Earlier chief ministers of the state, Nabam Tuki (the road was built in his tenure) and Kalikho Pul too had urged the central government to help open the road.

Claude Arpi, a well-known strategic affairs expert who holds a particular interest in Arunachal, however saw “little chance” of Bhutan agreeing to open the Tashigang-Lumla route.

“The matter has often been discussed between Indian and Bhutanese officials but no breakthrough could be achieved. Bhutan has its own reasons, such as restrictions on foreign entries into the country, China being on the other side of the hill, so [it] has officially opted out of BBIN MVA (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement),” he pointed out.

Aside from “discreet pressure from China” not to open the route (the pedestrian route was apparently used by many Indian soldiers to enter Bhutan during the Chinese aggression in 1962), Arpi said, “It was more the general public which felt that they may lose their happiness and peace in the bargain.”

A view of the Lumla town. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Religious affinity

Political observers in Arunachal agree. Nani Bath, professor of political science at the Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar spoke of “material influence” from the Mon region in a recent write up in the Arunachal Times. In a festival in Bhutan, he wrote, “some Monpas (or may be Tibetan refugees) were seen spending lakhs of rupees in arrow shooting game.”

He also talked about “two violent incidents (that) rocked the otherwise peaceful Mon region – one in 2014 and another in 2016”, as possible reasons for the common Bhutanese to be apprehensive about opening that road.

Though there was a religious war between the followers of two sects of Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma and Gelukpa) in Bhutan and Mon region in the times gone by, the present apprehension of that country, Bhutan watchers feel, has more to do with the strong influence of Dharamshala over Tawang, as Bhutan shares a border with China. It is also in border talks with China.

In the run-up to the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang, observers like Bath did raise the issue of whether it would further jeopardise the prospect of opening the Tashigang-Lumla road.

“The coronation of Jigme Singye Wangchuk, father of the present king of Bhutan, took place at a very young age. Some months before his official coronation, the government of Bhutan unearthed a plot to kill the young monarch involving some Tibetan refugees. The investigation revealed that Gyalo Thendhup, brother of the Dalai Lama, was the alleged kingpin of the plot. There are hundreds of Tibetan refugees in Bhutan who fled with the Dalai Lama in 1959 (many had already accepted Bhutanese citizenship),” he said in the newspaper article.

However, back in 2012, the Tawang district unit of Arunachal Pradesh Gaon Bura (village head) Association submitted a memorandum to the king of Bhutan urging him to build the Bhutan span of the road, reminding him of “the same religion, culture and traditions of the people of Bhutan and the Monpas of Tawang.”

The memorandum mentioned that for generations, the people of Tawang have been visiting religious places in Bhutan through that route by foot.

The village heads urged the king “to facilitate easy movement of people from both the countries as old people particularly face tough time to visit the religious places.”

Two weeks ago, when The Wire visited the border area of Bleteng and Warongde, that traditional social and religious bonhomie was palpable.

Locals sitting by the road at Bleteng village. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

“While our people go to that side for religious reasons, they come to our side, in huge numbers particularly to Tawang monastery and Gorsam Chorten in Zemithang,” said Thukla, a Bleteng resident.

Thukla said he and his wife went walking to Bhutan from Bleteng this past March to attend the Gombu Kora mela in Tashigang. After getting a pass issued from the district commissioner’s office in Tawang and then getting it stamped by the Lumla circle officer in Dudunghar, they walked through the mountains for about two hours through Bhutanese villages like Kheney before reaching Zangfu, from where they boarded a public bus for the onward journey.

Though villagers on both sides are supposed to get passes issued before crossing the border, locals said they do it only to attend melas and for pilgrimage.

“We have been using this route for centuries. Bhutanese villagers have been coming to Lumla and Tawang to sell vegetables and fermented food. You will find so many Bhutanese women roaming around in Lumla and Tawang town. We also go to the other side for trade, or to visit relatives. Who would bother going to Tawang so many kilometers away from Bleteng to take a pass? We do it only when we go on pilgrimage or to the festivals. The guards on both the sides recognise us,” said a villager.

Both the villagers and the SSB guards are only too happy to point to you all the Bhutanese border villages by name from the Indian post.

“That group of houses on the left is Keleng gaon; there is Yarbi there, you can see Gyangbo, Thangbrang, Manam…the Dupto check post on the Bhutan side is just a 30-minute walk from here,” said a villager. “It is a peaceful border, that’s why no army here, only SSB,” a guard added.

“During the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang,” the SSB guard looked at the register to say, “1,495 people came by foot through this gate to hear him.”

Though the road is not operational, a state transport minibus runs a daily service from the border gate to Lumla town. “It started some time ago. If not to Bhutan, the road can take us to Lumla instead of us walking the distance,” laughed Bleteng villager Yeshi.

Arpi felt, “India will have to find solutions [for road connectivity] within Tawang and West Kameng districts. There is no doubt that the terrain is difficult. Tunnelling is a possibility but it will raise the cost. Foreign collaboration, maybe with Japan, is an option.”

Looks like the road to “nowhere” will remain so.