Border road between India's Sikkim and Nepal to boost tourism, trade in last phase of construction

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Purna Hang Subba, a resident of Dentam in the northeast Indian state of Sikkim, is excited that a much-awaited Indo-Nepal project — a road that connects Sikkim to eastern Nepal via the Chiwa Bhanjyang border —is nearing completion.  "The work had stalled during the monsoon, but it is progressing now," said Subba.

"The 20-kilometre-long trans-Himalayan road was announced in 2011 under the Border Area Development Programme (BADP), an initiative of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. But due to its 15-kilometre-long forest land stretch, the project got the green signal for road construction only in 2018 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests," said Hari Shankar Sharma, Chief Engineer, Road and Bridges Department, Government of Sikkim.

"The road construction is in near completion stage and a fair-weather drive can be expected by the beginning of 2022," Sharma said. "However, with the remaining job of widening, carpeting and proper drainage, this road will take another year to be fully functional," he added.

“Extreme weather conditions and difficult terrain are causing delays in full-fledged road construction. Work is stopped in the monsoons due to heavy rainfall and again in winters due to snowfall. We can only work for 4-5 months of the year, the official said.

According to the Sikkim Road and Bridges Department, the body involved in the construction of the Uttarey-Chiwa Bhanjyang road, the revised cost for this project is 55.5 crores which is much higher as compared to the estimated cost when the project was initiated in 2011.

Meanwhile, on the Nepalese side, a road from Chiwa Bhanjyang up to the India-Nepal border has existed since 2013. With the completion of the Indian leg, Sikkim will be connected with the Nepal highway that stretches up to Darchula, the western end of Nepal.

Uttarey lies at an altitude of 6,600 feet in western Sikkim while Chiwabhanjyang in Nepal is at a height of 10,500 feet. The road linking the two border towns provides a stunning panorama of mount Kanchenjunga and access to picturesque trekking routes. The road route is expected to boost trade and tourism on both sides of the border. The region falls under the Khangchendzonga Landscape, an area spread across 25,080.8 square kilometres in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) India’s Khangchendzonga Landscape lies at the heart of the eastern Himalayas. It includes the state of Sikkim as well as northern West Bengal. The area lies in the shadow of the towering 8,585-metre Khangchendzonga peak – the third highest mountain in the world.

The northern part of this landscape comprises Sikkim, which has about 82 percent of its geographical area under forest jurisdiction. Darjeeling district and parts of Jalpaiguri are also part of this landscape.

The total area of this landscape is less than 10,000 sq km. Due to a wide range of altitudes -- ranging between 150 metres and 8500 metres --, this landscape boasts of a great variety of plants that range from tropical and temperate to alpine and tundra. This is one of the few regions in the world to exhibit such diversity in a small area. A great variety of wild animals are found in this area and the beautiful landscape is home to diverse ethnic communities. Due to its unique landscape, flora and fauna, the upcoming road in West Sikkim may give a good boom for transboundary ecotourism in both the neighbouring countries.

The landscape has opportunities for sustainable development through regional cooperation, cites a report published by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a Kathmandu based think tank. Transboundary ecotourism refers to visits to destinations across borders to experience culture, nature, lifestyles, cuisines, landmarks etc. The scope of transboundary ecotourism is wide and can attract tourists from across the globe.

Highlighting the region’s potential to become an eco-tourism hot spot, Peter Lobo of All India Birding Tours from Kalimpong said, “The road will help bring bird watchers, adventure lovers and nature enthusiasts from across the globe. This will help the locals to build up a tourism-based ecosystem.” Lobo has done many bird watching tours and treks in the Chiwabhanjyang area in the past. The international pass situated at 10,299 ft above sea level has a unique biodiversity that attracts lots of tourists every season, Lobo added.

Tourism in Sikkim has vastly developed in the last few years. After a lull due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions from 2020 to mid-2021, the region is again witnessing tourist inflow. According to Kapil Meena, Director, Sikkim Tourism Dept, “the new road will boost tourism in West Sikkim. With the easy road accessibility, more tourists can visit the beautiful villages of West district which help boost the economy of existing homestays and will also help villagers to start new ones.”
Knowing the fragility of the Kanchendonza Landscape, Meena spoke about sustainable tourism. “Toll taxes can be levied when the road gets functional and revenue generated can be used in implementing sustainable tourism practices.”

Besides the development of trade and tourism in the region with the start of the upcoming border road, this route has geopolitical importance opines Dr Arnab Chakrabarty from the International Relations Department of Sikkim University.

“Nepal has always been a close neighbour and India has traditionally enjoyed warm trade relations and cultural similarities with Nepal. However, with passing time, the relationship has seen some hard times related to the territorial disputes between the two nations. The upcoming roadway connectivity will improve the bilateral ties between both the countries and help boost tourism and small business and traders on both sides of the border,” Chakrabarty said.

He also spoke on the ‘unhealthy’ influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Nepal. “China's strategy lies in logistical connectivity, supplementing the receiving state's economy with massive opaque loans and other developmental projects. However, this pressurises the receiving state to obey future diktats from Beijing. Since all such projects require massive logistical support China focuses on road, rail and aerial connectivity. India in this regard should be seriously concerned considering Nepal's closeness with it. The road may be one of the solutions that both New Delhi and Kathmandu can focus on. Benign economic relations may outstrip Nepal's nascent dependency on the Chinese government,” he added.

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Border road between India's Sikkim and Nepal to boost tourism, trade in last phase of construction
Border road between India's Sikkim and Nepal to boost tourism, trade in last phase of construction
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