Friday, August 22, 2014

Typically disinterested babudom freezes Border Trade RANJIT SINGH

GANGTOK, 21 Aug: Nathula, for the umpteenth time, is in the middle of a controversy. Border trade via the Nathula has come to a standstill for the second time this season, and not just because of bad roads. The reason behind the trade suspension this time has more to do with bureaucratic logjams and confusion among various state agencies resulting in a predictable impasse.  The subsequent confusion and lack of initiative on the part of the state to “get going” comes out starkly in this rather unnecessary controversy.
While trade is officially still on with the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, traders from Sikkim are unable to engage in trade as there are no officials at the trade mart at Sherathang. Custom Officials have refused to go up to Sherathang this week and without the Customs officials present at their posts, trading is not possible. This is leading to significant losses for the traders, both Indian and Chinese.
Lately, the border trade had begun to pick up and had developed into its robust self that it had been in the past seasons. Officials at the Customs department, while speaking to NOW!, confirm that they have stopped going up to Sherathang. The reason, they inform, is that there is no accommodation facility available at Sherathang for an overnight stay for their officials.
“With the JN Road closed it is not viable for us to go via Rongli which is a six-hour journey; if we use this Rongli route we will have to stay the night over at Sherathang and there is no place for us there for an overnight stay,” say officials.
It is further added that with the increase in the scale of trade there has been an increase in the number of Customs personnel deputed to Trade duty at Sherathang. The number has increased from the earlier two to eight officials now, all of whom require proper and adequate accommodation.
It is not entirely true that there is no place at Sherathang for Customs officials for an overnight stay. In fact the state government has constructed a building expressly for Custom officials at Sherathang. This accommodation, it is informed, has been ready for the past few months now.
The only hitch is that it has not been handed over to the Customs for their use. This little, seemingly minor oversight has brought trade to a halt!
Delving further into the issue, it emerges that it was the Commerce & Industries Department which supervised the construction of this Customs quarters. The Customs department has written three letters to the Industries Department requesting that this structure be handed over to them. The department, it is informed, has not bothered to reply.
It was then left to the traders to take up the matter in order to save the border trade with China by approaching the concerned department. However, at the department it was quintessential bureaucratese when it passed the buck to the DC. It seems there is something called the Sherathang Development Agency and as is informed, the Industries department washed their hands off the matter saying that it was for the agency to do the allotment of the construction to the Customs.
The DC East, is the chairman of this agency. When traders met with the DC East the latter, supposedly expressed that he had no information on the matter!
Further inquiries reveal that the controversy or logjam is not limited to the Customs building at Sherathang. None of the newly built structures at Sherathang have been handed over to the concerned user agencies or parties. While this has not stopped trade, it is the matter of the customs building which has brought trade to a halt and exposed the lack of initiative of the state government.
In fact there is a letter of the Ministry of Urban Development, New Delhi to the Chief Secretary on this matter as well. The letter is dated 30 July, 2014. The Ministry expresses that construction of cafeteria, parking yard, shopping complex and other constructions at Sherathang for the benefit of the border traders is a subject matter which “…comes under the administrative control of the state government…”
It emerges that not just the customs building, all other infrastructures at Sherathang from cafeteria to parking yard, while having completed construction, have not been officially handed over to the user agencies and so are still under the contractors who built them.
It is embarrassing for the State that border trade with China remains suspended over such a commonplace ceremony as a “handing and taking over”.  The trade had just about begun to pick up after the initial hiccups earlier this season with almost 70 vehicles on average going up to the trade mart on the Indian side and 30 vehicles from China crossing over to Sherathang daily.

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