In her budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the government would work on improving connectivity to the northern border under the Vibrant Villages Programme. While Sitharaman did not give details, reports suggest that the programme is meant to improve infrastructure in villages along India's border with China, in states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Arunachal Pradesh.
The announcement comes at a time when increasing Chinese activity along the Himalayan frontier with India, including the construction of dual-use infrastructure, has sparked concerns in government, security forces, and strategic circles. Since 2017, China has undertaken large-scale construction activity along the border with India, building hundreds of border villages in Tibet to strengthen their presence along the frontier.
Construction of bases, including new dual-use airports, has also gathered pace ever since the standoff in eastern Ladakh took off in May 2020.
Under its “Xiaokang" or "well-off" villages programme, China has developed over 600 settlements along the border with India and Bhutan, some in territory claimed by New Delhi and Thimphu.
To convince Tibetans to move to these villages, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has invested in infrastructure, such as roads, railways, and the power grid. Around 30.1 billion yuan, or nearly $4.6 billion, was earmarked in 2017 for the construction of new homes and towards infrastructure for transport, energy, water, and communications, and for education and healthcare facilities.
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 goat, sheep, and yak to settle in these territories — pasturelands across the border that their ancestors may have had access to — by establishing a permanent presence there and forcing Indian and Bhutanese herders to abandon these areas through 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 Chinese President Xi Jinping landed for his Tibet visit late last year, his first as the country's president since 2013. The airport is located only 15 kilometres (km) away from Tibet's border with Arunachal.
China has also built a 450-km-long railway line linking Nyingchi to Lhasa. In the last five years, Nyingchi has hosted 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."
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 to patrol the border "at least once a month," and it takes "a week for them to make a complete tour."
China's efforts seem to be working — the population of border areas has grown by 10.5 per cent, Wu Yingjie, the Communist Party secretary for Tibet, revealed in August lasy year 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 its 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 the highway from Medog to the Yunnan-Tibet boundary (just north of Arunachal Pradesh), underline a continued focus on border areas.
One of the main aims of the CCP's border consolidation project in Tibet is to assert and strengthen its claim over disputed areas along the border.
While China has been settling new residents in 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.
In Himachal Pradesh, the two districts bordering China — Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur — witnessed a decline in 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 a lack of other economic opportunities, has led 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.
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 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 Line of Actual Control (LAC), so much so that the Chinese have resorted to aggressive tactics, such as coercion, to drive them away from places where they have not already left.
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 the nomads and their livestock grazing in the area, they were forced to go back across the LAC by 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 the Inner Line Permit (ILP) requirement for domestic tourists coming to Ladakh is one way of arresting this trend.
The development of infrastructure and improvement in connectivity under the Vibrant Villages Programme could further help to stem the trend of out-migration from border areas and even possibly reverse it in the future.
Among other things, the government plans to boost tourism in areas along the border to provide economic opportunities in these remote corners of the country.
On 6 August last year, the Administration of Ladakh removed the ILP requirement for Indian citizens to visit the protected areas in the Union territory. This move will make areas near the LAC, like Man and Merak on the south bank of Pangong Tso, Chushul and other villages near the Kailash Range, and parts of south-east Ladakh, easier for domestic tourists to access.
The move is aimed at maintaining a permanent Indian presence in remote areas. Facilitating more tourist arrivals will help in two ways:
One, it will create sustained opportunities for 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 business to cater to the rise of tourists to Ladakh.
The ILP requirement inhibits the development of tourism, but tourism is one of the few ways to create 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; foreign tourists are barred from entering the area 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.
The effort to use tourism to reverse de-population in border areas is not limited to Ladakh. In April last year, former 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 the inner-line permit system in districts bordering China.
Opening up border areas for tourism is still not the only way India is responding to the Chinese 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.
All such efforts, the Finance Minister said in her budget speech today, will converge with defined outcomes and will be regularly monitored.
When seen in light of other recent developments — unprecedented infrastructure build-up along the frontiers by the Border Roads Organisation and revision of guidelines for the Border Area Development Programme — it appears that India is finally responding to China's border consolidation project in Tibet.
A version of this piece was first published in September 2021.
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