GNATHANG (EAST SIKKIM): So finally, it was only the poor yaks who paid the price for the 72-day-long standoff between India and China at Doka La. Here in this village near the ridge that overlooks the disputed plateau, the staring contest between the Asian giants took a toll of the yaks.
Yak meat is a necessity to keep warm, so the bovine Himalayan animal is prized in all the border villages. A full-grown yak yields some 200 kg of meat, and one kilogram of it sells for Rs 180. As dry meat became scarcer during the standoff, fresh yaks were slaughtered and the meat was hung out to dry over the room heaters.
Now, after this summer of standing and staring, the people of Gnathang are counting their toll of yaks.
Situated 13,500 ft above sea level, Gnathang looks out to the ridge from where the disputed plateau can be seen on a sunny day. Like the people of many border villages in east Sikkim, the 360 residents of Gnathang work as porters for the Indian Army, hauling essential commodities to the troops posted on Doka La. They helped the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) build a road right up to the plateau.
The villagers have been kept on their toes since the standoff began 72 days ago. “The Army told us to keep our essential commodities ready, including warm clothes and dry meat, and get our permits renewed. We were asked to be ready for emergency evacuation even in the dead of night,” said Pemba Sherpa (name changed), a Gnathang porter.
But he quickly added: “However, we were safe. We were provided food and essential supplies. There were false reports on some TV channels that our village was evacuated. Had we felt unsafe, we would have long abandoned Gnathang.”
The residents here are issued special permits to work and stay, to mark them out from tourists and outsiders. The permits are renewed every year. Outsiders who run businesses such as cafes and eateries in the border villages too are required to renew their permits every six months.
Permit rules got tighter during the Doka La standoff. “Earlier, children below 10 did not require permits. But now they do. People leaving the village without their permits on them are not allowed to return,” said Hema Subba (name changed), a Gnathang resident who works for the BRO.
The permits are so important as proof of Indian citizenship that residents even use them to apply for passes when they have to visit Bhutan.
The army porters have to carry 20 kg loads up the mule tracks to the international border and are paid Rs 11,800 per month. The BRO workers are paid about Rs 200 less for a similar kind of work.
During the Doka La tensions, Gnathang residents were under strict orders not to talk to outsiders lest sensitive information reach Chinese ears just across the border. The rule is rarely flouted for it might cost the errant resident his or her precious permit.
Despite the ‘expeditious disengagement’ announced by India and China, life has not returned to pre-standoff normalcy for the people of Gnathang. “Just 48 hours ago, we feared to speak out loud. Who knows who’s listening? Anyone asking questions and giving answers is watched in Gnathang. How can that change all of a sudden. It will be some time before we can go back to our normal lives,” said Sumitra Rai (name changed), owner of one of the dozen homestays in Gnathang.