(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES OF INDIA)
The Sikkim government on Thursday announced that it was closing the Nathu La (pass) trade route with China and the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra through the pass this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The state government is also likely to continue the ban on entry of even domestic tourists till October.
“Our government has decided to close the China-India trade route through Nathu La pass. The Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra through Nathu La will remain closed this year, ”B S Panth, Sikkim’s tourism and civil aviation minister, said.
Under the Nathu La trade protocol, traders from Sikkim are allowed limited access to the Tibet autonomous region while Chinese traders are allowed a few kilometres into Indian territory.
“Very soon we will adopt a proposal and inform the Centre. Since China is the epicentre of the outbreak we will close the Nathu La trade route which is supposed to open on May 1,” the minister said. “The Kailash- Mansarovar Yatra is also not happening this year.”
The much-hyped international trade route was reopened on July 6, 2006 after remaining closed since 1962. The Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra, organised annually by the ministry of external affairs from June to September through Nathu La was reopened in June 2015. Another route for the yatra is through Lipulekh pass in Uttarakhand. The international trade through Nathu La continues till end of November.
Sikkim has not reported any Covid-19 case so far. The state was among the first to ban the entry of domestic and foreign tourists and migrant labourers. It sealed the international borders with China, Nepal and Bhutan and two of the four border check posts with West Bengal.
The Nathu La trade pass and Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra are two major revenue earners for Sikkim. The state drew more than 12 lakh domestic tourists and 1,33,388 foreign visitors in 2019.
Panth said Sikkim is unlikely to allow even domestic tourists till October. “If the situation improves we may rethink the issue,” he said. However the minister indicated that the ban on the entry of foreign tourists will continue. The state government gets an annual revenue of around Rs 10 crore from the tourism industry.
On June 16, 2015, the then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj flagged off the first batch of 40 pilgrims from New Delhi who headed for Kailash-Mansarovar thought Nathu La. The announcement from the Chinese side was made by President Xi Jinping during his India visit in September 2014.
In 2015, the Sikkim government sponsored two Sikkimese who took part in the yatra.
More than 6,000 pilgrims from India take part in the pilgrimage every year. Most of them make their way through the Nepal-China border town of Khasa (Tatopani).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted the second route for Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra to be reopened in view of the difficult terrain through Uttarakhand and Nepal.