Context:

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, inaugurated Lipu Lekh pass on May 8, said the road built by the Border Roads Organisation, was important for “strategic, religious and trade” reasons.

Background

  • Lipulekh sits atop the Kalapani Valley and forms a tri-junction between India, Nepal and China. It is an ancient trade and pilgrimage route made famous locally by the Bhutiya people who have inhabited the region for centuries.
  • India had closed Lipulekh from 1962 to 1991 due to the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
  • It is on the route of the annual Kailash Masarovar Yatra, which goes through Uttarakhand’s Pithoragath district.
  • The 80 km road goes right up to the Lipu Lekh pass on the LAC, through which Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims exit India into China to reach the mountain and lake revered as the abode of Siva. The last section of 4 km of the road up to the pass still remains to be completed.

Importance

  • The government has underlined that through this improved route, yatris do not need the alternative routes now available for the pilgrimage, one through the Nathu La border in Sikkim and the other via Nepal.
  • Now pilgrims to Mansarovar will traverse 84 per cent land journeys on Indian roads and only 16 per cent in China.
  • The Sikkim and Nepal routes are much-longer and the road via Pithoragarh will ensure that most of the journey is within Indian Territory. This is not the case with the other two routes that require pilgrims to enter Chinese territory.
  • The new road is also expected to provide better connectivity to Indian traders for the India-China border trade at the Lipu Lekh pass between June and September every summer.
  • Pilgrims from India can reach Kailash Mansarovar through three routes — via Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Kathmandu in Nepal — all of which are long and arduous.
  • The route via Uttarakhand involves three stretches. The first stretch is a 107.6 km-long road from Pithoragarh to Tawaghat, the second is from Tawaghat to Ghatiabgarh on a 19.5-km single lane, and the third stretch is the 80 kms from Ghatiabgarh to Lipulekh Pass at the China border, which can only be traversed on foot. This stretch takes almost five days to cover and is a tough journey. Several accidents have occurred on this route.
  • The Border Roads Organisation is converting the second stretch into a double lane road and has built a new road on the third stretch to allow vehicles. It has completed 76 km of the 80-km stretch so far, cutting travel time to just two days by a vehicle.

Nepal’s Concerns and Border Issue

  • On the day the road was inaugurated, there was an outcry in Nepal. The next day the Nepal Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing disappointment over New Delhi’s unilateral act.
  • Nepal claims that the Lipulekh pass comes under its territory and lies in the Dharchula district in Sudurpashchim Pradesh. It is marked by the Kalapani River, one of the headwaters of the Kali River in the Himalayas at an altitude of 3,600–5,200 meters.
  • Nepal has brought up its concerns on the border issue several times, including in November 2019, when Delhi put out its new political map of India to show the bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir.
  • Nepal’s objection then was the inclusion of Kalapani in the map, in which it is shown as part of Uttarakhand. The area falls in the trijunction between India, China and Nepal.
  • Since the 1962 war with China, India has deployed the ITBP at Kalapani, which is advantageously located at a height of over 20,000 ft and serves as an observation post for that area.
  • Nepal has also been unhappy about the China-India trading post at Lipu Lekh, the earliest to be established between the two countries
  • In 2015, when India and China signed another trade treaty allowing trade through Lipulekh pass, Nepal lodged protest with both India and China staking claim on the Kalapani area.
  • China has also tried to have some foothold in Nepal due to its geo-strategic importance. This has led to rise of China-leaning Maoist leaders in Nepal.
  • Kalapani being another tri-junction involving India and China, it is a strategic vantage point for the country that controls the area. China is making serious inroads in Nepal, through investment in both infrastructure and technology.

History of Kalapani Dispute

Kalapani is a strategically important tri-junction between India, China and Nepal in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarahand.

  • The Nepal-India border was delineated by the Sugauli Treaty of 1816, under which it renounced all territory to the west of the river Kali, also known as the Mahakali or the Sarada river. The river effectively became the boundary.
  • The terms were reiterated by a second treaty between Nepal and Briitsh India in 1923. The rival territorial claims centre on the source of the Kali.
  • Nepal’s case is that the river originates from a stream at Limpiyadhura, north-west of Lipu Lekh. Thus Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura, and Lipu Lekh, fall to the east of the river and are part of Nepal’s Far West province in the district of Dharchula.
  • New Delhi’s position is that the Kali originates in springs well below the pass, and that while the Treaty does not demarcate the area north of these springs, administrative and revenue records going back to the nineteenth century show that Kalapani was on the Indian side, and counted as part of Pithoragarh district, now in Uttarakhand. Both sides have their own British-era maps as proof of their positions.
  • Nepal says it has historical documents and tax receipts to show that people inhabiting that area belonged to the country.
  • India, on the other hand, rejects the claim citing Mughal history and British control over the area. After the British left India, it maintained a police post in Kalapani since mid-1950s. From 1979-80, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) has been manning the boundaries.
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