Indian news reports have been going ballistic over the construction of the so-called ‘model’ villages allegedly on Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. The past year has witnessed a spate of reports about Chinese so-called xiaokang (model) villages, which are often peopled by a mix of Han and Tibetans, coming up at several points in Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan. The latest Pentagon report on China referred to the construction of one such village near Longju, an area claimed by India.
India claims some of the areas north of the McMahon Line, which was supposed to form the Sino-Indian boundary here. But the fact is that the Chinese have never accepted this line as the border, which is, in fact, constituted as the Line of Actual Control (LAC); as the Indian Army and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, recently clarified, these model villages fall clearly on the Chinese side of the LAC.
Chinese Villages Are Springing Up in Bhutan, Too
Our neighbour Bhutan’s plight is more poignant. The Chinese have simply constructed these villages on the areas they claim. Like the Sino-Indian border, the entire Bhutan-China border is also disputed. The Chinese claim chunks of Bhutanese territories in the western portion, including Doklam, in the north, and more recently, they have revived an old claim to parts of eastern Bhutan.
NDTV had reported in November 2020 about Pangda village on the banks of the Torsa/Mochu river, which was some 2 km into Bhutanese territory on the eastern portion of the Doklam plateau, and the road it was building along the river deeper into Bhutan. As it is, with just 7.72 lakh people, Bhutan is underpopulated. A country the size of Denmark, it has just one-seventh its population, and hence it lacks the capacity to police its borders, as well as populate them.
Subsequently, in May this year, Robert Barnett had reported that the Chinese had been building similar villages in northern Bhutan. Of these, three had already been occupied and one was under construction. In addition, there were 66 miles of roads, a small hydropower station and five military or police posts.
Last week, NDTV again reported that the Chinese had built as many as four villages in a portion of western Bhutan, which the Chinese claim. The villages had been made in the space of just over a year between May 2020 and November this year.
In Ladakh, there has been another kind of a problem. In the 1980s, security forces prevented Indian shepherds from taking their herds to certain areas. By the time these restrictions were lifted, the Chinese had occupied several pasturages, especially in the Fukche and Demchok areas.
Chinese border guards regularly intrude into Indian pasturages in Ladakh and in Barahoti in Uttarakhand to harass the shepherds.
Locals Are Migrating to Plains
Most recently, Konchok Stanzin, who represents Chushul in the Ladakh Autonomous Council, complained to the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, that since the recent troubles in eastern Ladakh, the Army had been blocking locals from accessing certain grazing grounds.
Back in 2013, Ambassador P. Stobdan, who is a Ladakhi, pointed out how China had, between 1984 and 2008, taken over the 45-km-long pasturage of Skakjung in the Demchok-Kuyul sector of Ladakh. This was the only winter pasture land for the nomads of Chushul, Nyoma, Dungti, Kuyul and Loma villages and sustained a large number of sheep and yak through the winter.
But since 1993, the Chinese began to shoo away Indian herders into abandoning those areas and constructed permanent structures. Sino-Indian hostilities have disrupted the normal pattern of life of the Changpa nomads of Ladakh who resided in the Changhthang plateau, which straddles Tibet and Ladakh.
All across the Himalayas, on the Indian and the Tibetan side, there has been a great deal of depopulation. Life in the region is extremely arduous and the problems of cross-border trade have made livelihood based on wool and grazing more difficult. Even in the lower Himalayas, people have migrated to the plains in search of jobs and better education for their children. While several of the tribes and ethnic groups have been given the Scheduled Tribe status, that has not quite managed to deal with the problem.
By pushing into unpopulated areas of the Himalayan region, Beijing is establishing the basis for their possession. At the same time, it is also ensuring the security of the border region, which cannot be guaranteed by the military or border guards alone.
India Needs a Himalayan Strategy to Promote Development
Speaking at the seventh national forum on work in Tibet on 28-29 August 2020, Xi Jinping spelt out the key elements of China’s Tibet policy: “stability, development, ecology and border area consolidation”. He went on to add that ”to govern the nation, we must govern our borders; to govern our borders we must first stabilize Tibet”.
That the Chinese have stepped up their infrastructure building activities in Tibet is no secret – the model village activity on our borders is only one manifestation of this. There is a whole range of up-gradation activities going on with regard to the PLA in Tibet. There has been a spurt in the development of airbases and military billets for the PLA personnel, who are also now receiving some of the more advanced weapons systems.
Xi Jinping himself has taken interest in the issue since the Doklam crisis. In July 2021, he became the first Chinese leader to visit Tibet and spend time in the region opposite Arunachal Pradesh, where he opened a strategically important railway line linking Lhasa to Nyingchi, just 15 km from the Indian border.
India has stepped up its infrastructure construction activity as well, but this is related to its military posture. What is needed is a wider Himalayan strategy that would promote development, employment and measures to prevent depopulation of the mountain areas.
Since such a strategy would involve several states and ministries, it is important that the apex leadership is provided by the Prime Minister himself.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)