Informal border trade between India’s Ladakh and Sikkim on one hand and China’s Tibet on the other have been badly hit by the border stand-off.

Traders in Ladakh said the winter time mule convoys have been dismantled by them because there was no chance of crossing into Tibet with them.

Ladakhi traders cross into Tibet with mules loaded with dry fruits, spices, rice, flour and much else every winter. Frozen rivers help the movement.

They return with manufactured Chinese goods including electronics, processed food and so much more.

Tibetan traders enter Ladakh and Sikkim for Indian goods which have great demand in Tibet.

The trade is still largely done through barter with volume equivalents decided before hand by syndicates that are connected down the generations.

Ladakhi and Sikkimese traders know their Tibetan counterparts well and the quantum of the trade for the coming year is decided at the end of each trading year.

The trading year begins in October and ends in March because only during winter do rivers freeze and facilitate cross border movement.

Both Indian and Chinese armies have allowed this trade to continue even after the 1962 war, as commanders realise their importance for the local economy.

But suggestions for formalising this trade has not helped so far.

The two governments, however, have been okay with establishing more border trade points, though there are no haats like the ones on the India-Bangladesh border.

In Sikkim, a similar trade through the Nathu La pass, restored since earlier in this century, has also dropped sharply due to the border tensions.

Economists and Revenue Intelligence officials estimate the Himalayan border trade, largely informal, to be worth $ 10 million annually — $ 4 to 5 million in Ladakh as quite as much in Sikkim. These are according to estimates earlier in the decade and some say could be more than $ 15 million now.

But this year, with both armies deployed heavily on the border in combat mode since early summer, the border trade looks like totally grounded.

Since mid-June when they fought violently, neither the Indian nor the Chinese armies appear in any mood to allow the mule convoys to cross the frontiers.

‘That is disaster for us. We are ruined,” says Tashi, identifying himself only by his first name. The Ladakhi trader is all for confronting China but the stand-off has left him with prospects of ‘zero-trade’.

“We would pray for an early settlement within November if possible,” said his wife Pema, adding,  “But neither armies appear in any mood for a let off.  They only left after he was able to get cash from a bank.”

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: sbhaum@gmail.com