Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Farewell, Foxbat

April 16, 2006

The air force station at Bareilly is like any other airbase in the country. Clean, well maintained, neatly pruned hedges, shining insignias and signs all around, even flowers blooming in the summer heat. Everyone here likes it this way — unobtrusive, quiet, sober, the dust and din of Bareilly town well outside the forbidding gates.

Till now, the same forbidding gates have guarded one of the force’s most abiding secrets. The dog squads of the early 1980s have been replaced by much more effective metal cordons, separating 35 Squadron, codenamed Rapiers, from the rest of the picturesque station. For a good 25 years, the base has guarded a few precious machines that no outsider was ever allowed to see.

Obviously, the machines served the force well. And, finally, the IAF decided that the machines have served enough. So two weeks ahead of the May 1 phase-out deadline, the IAF agreed to ‘declassify’ some of its mysteries. It was the privilege of two Express journalists to be the first inside the IAF’s MiG-25 Foxbat spyplane unit.

After a revelatory three-hour tour of the base, the MiG-25 turns out nothing like what the drawing-room legends have thrown it up to be.

It is a great deal more.

The traditional secrecy lingers, but there is no longer any doubt. Ask anyone, including the intensely passionate base commander Air Commodore Shankar Mani, about whether the Foxbats were hurriedly purchased in 1981 to spy on Pakistan and China, and he will tell you: “They were bought for strategic reconnaissance. That should answer your question.”

Unlike the fierce Cold War arms race, the Foxbat represented a typically radical swerve away from the way the world was moving in the 1960s and 70s.

A big mammoth of an aircraft, powered by huge twin engines, flying three times the speed of sound and over three times higher than the maximum altitude allowed to civil airliners, the MiG-25 was the perfect monster the Indian government — and especially then Air Chief Idris Latif — needed to gun up IAF’s virtually non-existent reconnaissance capability in the late 1970s to spy on Pakistan and China.

Latif, now leading a retired life in Hyderabad, pulled out his old albums three days ago to reminisce. Over the phone, he said, “I am saddened that our Foxbats will soon be gone, but they served an intensely useful purpose. When I was the IAF chief, I was shocked and delighted to learn that the Soviets were actually offering MiG-25 Foxbats to us in 1980. I phoned up Mrs (Indira) Gandhi and she told me to go ahead and make a decision. She was a brilliant leader to work with. The Foxbat was the best in the world and it was made available to us.”

A month before he retired, Latif took a Foxbat up 90,000 feet to say farewell to his force. The other incident widely speculated upon was how in 1987, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi shot down a suggestion from the Air chief that the Foxbats be used to spy on Pakistani armoured movements. It was a particularly hostile time in the Western sector.

The incumbent chief at the time, Dennis La Fontaine, now living a less hectic life at his farmhouse in Brahmanapally village in Andhra Pradesh, told The Sunday Express: “Those were issues of national security. If you believe that strategic reconnaissance is a bad thing, then understand that military intelligence gathering, by its very nature, is illegal. These are understood around the world. Why pick up these issues long past?”

La Fontaine was about to undertake a flight in a Foxbat when he was Central Air Commander, but by the time he arrived at the base, he received orders appointing him Western Air Commander, and so a dream remained unfulfilled.

An enigma shrouds the Foxbat. Entirely unarmed — the IAF chose the reconnaissance variant, not the interceptor — and with no modern countermeasures against surface-launched missiles, the Foxbat’s only defence lies in its speed and cruising altitude.

At Mach 3, it leaves even the best guided missiles far behind in a chase, and at 90,000 feet, it is comfortably beyond actionable ground radar beams. Put together, the MiG-25 is simply invisible to the enemy.

In 1997, an IAF Foxbat famously darted into Pakistani airspace and its sonic boom alerted ground radars into action. But zooming back towards the Indian border, the Foxbat was just a blur to Pakistani air defence missiles and F-16s scrambling up from Sargodha.

Interestingly, the initial lifespan of the MiG-25s was to be just 14 years and the planes would have been gone by 1995. The year saw them put to amazing use darting up to the stratosphere to get crystal-clear photographs of the solar eclipse, the sun’s rays untouched and unscattered by interfering atmospheric molecules.

One of the two pilots who flew that mission is also the seniormost and most experienced Foxbat pilot still in service, Air Vice Marshal Sumit Mukerji, assistant chief at Air Headquarters. “It was an experiment that worked. Not only did we film the diamond ring of the eclipse, but also the starburst, when the sun’s light filtered through the crevasses and mountains on the moon. It was an amazing image. And from that height and speed, we were able to film the eclipse for a minute and 57 seconds, impossible from the ground,” he said.

In 1995, a life extension programme pushed the MiG-25s for another ten years. In 2001, another programme propelled the jets until 2005. The final extension was made last year. Finally, the IAF decided the machines wouldn’t be pushed any more.

Predictably, it is now exorbitantly expensive and time-consuming to maintain the Foxbats. With the Russians no longer supplying spares and claiming to have done away with all blueprints, any more reverse engineering by the technicians at the Bareilly airbase is plainly uneconomical.

Wing Commander Jayapal Patil, the technical officer who currently keeps the jets in ship-shape on their final run, said, “These aircraft have flown for 25 years at high speeds, so there is a level of aerodynamic strain. After the first life extension, we inspected and strengthened the jet’s mounting points, and changes made to the landing gear. But the aircraft are now at their end.”

Base commander Shankar Mani is more forthright: “Now, if there’s a problem, we have to struggle to even find a fuel leak because it is such an enormous and complex machine. The Russians don’t help us with spares or blueprints. On the flipside, we’ve gained precious expertise maintaining the Foxbats entirely ourselves.”

The apparent romance of flying spying missions in such brutally powerful aircraft is severely eroded by the reality of multiple dangers pilots are always just inches away from and the indispensable discomforts of flying in extreme conditions.

First, of course, there’s the fear. Knowing that you’re sitting on 20 tons of jet fuel and moving at screaming velocities can get unnerving. Secondly, you’re in a decidedly uncomfortable skin-tight suit to stop your blood from boiling over and rupturing your skin. Thirdly, you’re always faced with the prospect of a 60,000 foot free fall if you ever have to eject from that altitude before your parachute opens. It has never happened, so nobody knows if a pilot will survive such a long drop through far below freezing temperatures.

But Wing Commander Alok Chauhan, one of the two pilots who took a Foxbat into the skies exclusively for this newspaper’s cameras, sums it up like only a Foxbat pilot can: “When you’re up that high, and you can see the earth’s curvature and the blue band of the atmosphere, there’s a serene sense of detachment, a feeling of physical separation that is hard to match and difficult to describe.”

Spiritual, maybe.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Travels in Bofors Country

June 2005

I’M sure guns are the last thing on most people’s minds when they drive into Karlskoga. This tiny town, three hours west of Stockholm, is big on serene lakes, wild strawberries, moose-infested woods, friendly people and on the south side, a quiet and inscrutable community working hard to judge how best a gun may destroy a tank 60 km away.

Bang in the middle of the E18 highway connecting Stockholm and Oslo to the West, Karlskoga, which gets its name from King Karl IX and means ‘Karl’s forest’, is painfully small and, by most accounts, quite typically Swedish.

Run fast enough and you could cross city limits, but it’s also where Alfred Nobel—his lungs filled with fluid and his brain with blueprints for detonators—decided that dynamite was to be the commercial jackpot of 19th century Europe.

It made him impossibly rich, but it also instilled in him a fear of being buried alive, so he came crawling back from France to Karlskoga towards the end of his century to buy out Bofors (yes, the one we all know so well).

It was also here, dying and lonely, that Nobel scripted a will that left 33 million kroners to a trust fund that would disburse five Nobel prizes, an act that compelled a bitter and unsuccessful court battle in Karlskoga by anguished relatives. His house in Björkborns Herrgård still has a copy of the will and Nobel’s original library; the caretakers will dish up his favourite dinner if you’re willing to wait.

Apart from the rather alarming scattering of well-hidden gun graveyards— which the Swedes have charmingly converted into museums—Karlskoga’s Lake Möckeln, which runs like a thread all along its short span, is really a canal which, in the words of one affable Swede, ‘‘could reach you all the way to New York if you were patient’’. That’s through the North Sea, if you’re still wondering.

The contrast of astonishing scenery and artillery workshop can be most jarring, but it’s an irony the Swedes have learnt not just to live with, but revel in. Everything about this country is aesthetic—even where they make their guns, they’re trying to tell you. But why in the middle of this breathtakingly beautiful town do people have to make guns?

Then you remember—Sweden was never part of NATO, nor was it part of the Warsaw Pact. I mean, how much of a security doctrine can you possibly have if your highest national security concerns emanate from lower Latvia?

But sitting in Sweden, it’s not hard to imagine the political establishment telling the rest of Europe to shove off and find its own peace. Sweden continues to be, impressively but strangely enough, one of the world’s largest producers of artillery weapons, some of which helped India recover the Kargil heights.

Karlskoga is close to that other great Swedish metropolis, Gothenburg, off which Sweden gets most of its staple—herring. But the town bears no signs of its rather jarring and deep industrial history—it was, at one time, one of Sweden’s largest producers of iron. However, the large complement of smelters that once roared through the day from the late 16th century until Nobel’s own time have all been dismantled. The only remnants are signboards to old iron factories that are now, happily enough, forested land.

That’s another beautiful thing about Sweden. When a building comes down and the town decides they don’t need it, back comes a clump of trees to cover up the concrete mess. But it’s remarkable when you think that this little hamlet pumped out a large part of Sweden’s surprisingly large iron requirement at the time, to build ships and weapons.

It was the economic crisis of the 19th century that eliminated whole industries, leaving behind a handful of crippled but active firms, including Bofors, which reinvented itself.

Bestowed with town status only in 1940, Karlskoga is possibly one of the best places in the country for Swedish food. The word smorgasbord (translated as ‘bread and butter table’) is the general term for a sort of Swedish buffet that includes at least six types of bread, either meatballs or ham, herring of course, caviar, green salad, more herring, sausages, boiled vegetables and just a little more herring.

It’s one of those things you’d probably like to try out, since a ‘decided’ course can be rather, shall we say, surprising. Main courses in this beautiful country include such items as reindeer and hare, so it’s a good idea to be sure. I wasn’t, to be perfectly honest.

Like the rest of Sweden, the town has a perilously ageing population, therefore the Swedish government is sitting on a veritable pension time bomb, if more people are not encouraged to populate the current generations. Old timers sigh that the younger crop now leave the country or stay and waste their lives being ‘American’.

In Karlskoga’s cheerful town square, the crop of students I saw over three days were the same bunch—they wore Iron Maiden T-shirts, metal chains, top hats, nose rings, and made the evil hip hop sign, which may seriously offend Bruce Dickinson if he ever decided to visit.

When the day is out, if you listen hard enough, on a cold windless night in Karlskoga, you can hear the distant boom of guns being test-fired in a forest 10 miles to the west, deep in the middle of a forest, by arms manufacturers and the Swedish Army. The sound waves are not quite loud enough, though, to create ripples on Lake Möckeln.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Indo-Pak Air War of 1965

I just heard that BharatRakshak's PVS Jagan Mohan has received the Chief of Air Staff's Commendation for his contribution to documenting IAF history, and particularly his effort on the Indo-Pak air war of 1965 with Samir Chopra published in 2005. I reproduce below the review I did of his book in The Indian Express last year:

RAKESH SINHA & SHIV AROOR
JULY 30, 2006

In an interview to The Indian Express last week, Air Chief SP Tyagi, concerned over his force’s fleet strength, said he had asked the government to “order more aircraft of the types we already operate” since numbers were heading toward unacceptable levels. Plans for 126 new fighters and their induction could take 15 years and “we can’t afford to wait that long... our only option is to get something in a hurry”. Pointing to more F-16s for Islamabad and the induction into PAF of Chinese JF-17s in large numbers from next year, Tyagi warned that Pakistan would have greater fighter density than India for a country its size.

There is a familiar ring to his concerns, a sense of déjà vu that takes you back 40 years: the run-up to the 1965 Indo-Pak war, and the war itself, were the IAF’s first hard lessons in the “dangers of neglecting offensive and support capabilities”. In what is one of the most graphic and honest accounts of the war, PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra’s The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965 (Manohar Books, 2005) introduces you to an IAF, which, on the threshold of an uncertain long-term expansion plan, is suddenly told to go to war in old, equally uncertain machines.

Vampires and Ouragans which had “no business being in the skies” at the time joined Mysteres, Hunters and Gnats to take on the PAF’s cutting edge American F-86 Sabres and F-104 Starfighters. At that time, the Sabre was “the fastest and most powerful aircraft in the subcontinent" while the Starfighter was a "missile with a man in it”. Had it not been for the men who made the IAF at the time, the 1965 war could have turned out quite differently.

The account by Mohan and Chopra, replete with interviews with pilots and veterans, squadron diaries and unpublished photographs, not only demolishes myths and counterclaims on both sides but makes one of the most critical points of all — that the 1965 operations inestimably helped prepare the IAF for a war which was to be upon it just six years later, and possibly put in perspective for the government, the immediate need for a progressive and structured modernization programme, one that would leave the ground in the late 1970s.

The account does both nations service by unmasking insightful official accounts of the war: “To bolster a nation’s morale, deliberate untruths are fed to the public, intending to keep both the public as well as the military in high spirits. Admissions of severe setbacks or of inaction against the enemy would invite public anger. Both India as well as Pakistan abide by this style. Thus, the Indian public never hears of the retreat to Jaurian or Khem Karan, while the Pakistani public never hears of the retreat from Wagah, or the battering its armour received at Assal Uttar.”

Here are some excerpts from The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965 by PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra (Manohar Books, 2005).

‘LET’S NOT GET INVOLVED’
It is still little known that four months before the 1965 operations, Pakistan’s Air chief Asghar Khan, justifiably rattled by an IAF photo-reconnaissance flight which snapped Pakistani Patton tanks that had eaten into Kutch as part of the April incursion, called up his counterpart IAF chief Arjan Singh to suggest that the two air forces not get involved no matter what happens on the ground.

Khan’s call to Singh infuriated Pakistan’s Army chief General Musa, and Khan had to retire two months later after several bouts of justification and apparent self-contradiction to be replaced by deputy Nur Khan.

“Pakistan’s adventures in the Kutch should have alerted the IAF to the dangers of neglecting their offensive and support capabilities in this sector but even after the Kutch incursion, neither the IAF nor the Army planned for further operations in the south-western sector.”

NO TIME TO CONSULT THE PRIME MINISTER
In August, the Pakistan Army’s Operation Gibraltar, “the master plan to free Kashmir”, fell apart and the Indian Army retaliated by occupying the strategic Haji Pir Pass on August 28. Large swathes in PoK were also overrun. Three days later, on September 1, Pakistan launched Operation Grandslam, an armoured thrust into Chamb, from where the country hoped to push on to the Akhnur Bridge and sever the link to South-West Kashmir.

“The Chiefs (General Chaudhuri and Air chief Arjan Singh) agreed that air strikes against the Pakistani Army were the only way to prevent the Indian defences from being completely overrun... Faced with a tough decision and and with no time to consult the Prime Minister or the ECC (Emergency Coordination Committee), (Defence Minister Y B) Chavan boldly gave the go ahead.”

Within an hour, the first fighters had taken to the air.

THE FIRST SABRE SLAYERS
On September 3, Pakistani radars tracked four Mysteres as they took off from Pathankot and headed for Chamb. Six Sabres and two Starfighters, far more equipped and advanced than their quarry, were scrambled to intercept the Mysteres. What the Pakistanis didn’t realise was that four Gnats were vectored behind the Mysteres. Squadron Leader Trevor Keelor’s wingman was Flight Lieutenant “Kicha” Krishnaswamy (who went on to become the IAF chief almost forty years later). As the Sabres closed in, warnings went out.

“Keelor opened fire with his twin 30mm cannon from a distance of about 450 yards, closing in to 200 yards. In an instant, the Sabre’s right wing appeared to disintegrate and it flicked over into an uncontrollable dive. The IAF had claimed its first kill... Keelor became the first Indian pilot to claim a jet in air-to-air combat...

“At one point, Krishnaswamy found the Starfighter on his tail, which overshot him and presented a nice target. But as Krishnaswamy later admitted, he was so awestruck at the sight of the sleek and beautiful fighter that before he could gather his instincts to open fire, the target had slipped away.”

Next day, Flight Lieutenant V S Pathania made the second kill, shooting down a Sabre over the Akhnur sector.

PAF STRIKES BACK
When a “shaken” Ayub Khan told Nur Khan his air force could launch full-scale raids on IAF airbases, the “initiative” “slipped from the IAF’s hands to the PAF’s”.

“Evening was approaching Pathankot as Wing Commander Dandapani made a phone call to Pathankot air base from Amritsar’s 230 SU. Dandapani asked for (Pathankot station commander Group Captain Roshan) Suri, and on being told that he was not available was put through to Wing Commander Kuriyan, the OC Flying.

“Dandapani told Kuriyan that they had painted several Sabres, coming from the vicinity of Sarghoda and going ‘off the scope’, as they went below the radar horizon. But he could see one lone aircraft coming in at an altitude of 19,000 feet. This lone aircraft was probably scouting the way ahead for the main formation. This had all the tell-tale signs of an incoming raid. Dandapani suggested that Kuriyan scramble Pathankot’s air defence fighters.

“Here, things get confusing. Dandapani insists that Kuriyan refused to scramble the air patrol and pooh-poohed his fears of the incoming raid. Kuriyan claims to have immediately informed Suri... but was ordered off the shift... Squadron Leader J F Josephs, duty pilot that day in the ATC, could overhear the radio conversation between Kuriyan and Dandapani. As one ATC officer turned to him and asked, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Josephs replied ‘Don't ask, just watch the west’.

“Even as frantic attempts were made to get Base Ops on the phone, all eyes in the ATC turned west... As the Sabres left, 10 plumes of smoke rose in the air. The raid had been highly successful, resulting in the destruction of ten IAF aircraft...”

8-PASS CHARLIE
Two weeks into the war, Adam-pur’s pilots had a name for a PAF B-57 bomber pilot: 8-Pass Charlie. “The name was derived from the number of passes the B-57 would make in each raid. Normally it would come up over the target and dump its load of 8 bombs at one go, without giving time for the defenses to react...

“But 8-Pass Charlie would make eight different runs and drop just one bomb each on select targets... Paddy Earle paid tribute to the unknown Pakistani pilot: ‘I have the utmost respect for the Pakistani Canberra bloke who loved to ruin the equanimity of our dreary lives. 8-Pass Charlie was an ace, but he had this nasty habit of turning up about 30 minutes after moonrise, just as we were downing our first drink. Seriously, he was a cool dude and a professional of the highest order...’”

DEVAYYA AND THE STARFIGHTER
Squadron Leader A B Devayya became one of the war’s great mysteries. While raiding Sargodha, Devayya’s Mystere was targeted by a Starfighter. “But Devayya had survived the attack and his aircraft was still flyable. He could either fly back home or eject if things worsened with the aircraft. A third option was to fight it out... The Starfighter was in a steep turn, just a couple of hundred feet above ground level, as the turning Mystere shot away its controls.” Devayya never returned from Sargodha.

“In 1972, PAF officials told John Fricker (PAF’s war-historian) that a Mystere had shot the Starfighter down and it was not as earlier claimed, an ‘accident’. Fricker reported the incident as a loss to a Mystere. There lay a mystery. None of the Mystere pilots that day had reported air combat and certainly not with a Starfighter. But two Mysteres were lost over Sargodha. The one lost in the morning, roughly coinciding with the timing reported by Fricker, was Devayya’s.

“After receiving letters of confirmation from ‘Omi’ Taneja, the Indian government came to the conclusion that Amjad Hussain (the Starfighter pilot) was shot down by Devayya, who himself crashed soon after. Devayya’s widow Sundari Devayya received the fifth and the last MVC awarded to the air force for the 1965 war in April 1988, almost 23 years after the event.”

WHY THEY DON’T DISCUSS THE EAST
In the East, the PAF’s 14 Squa-dron with 12 Sabres was on its own at Tejgaon. But on September 7, they struck Kalaikunda in West Bengal.

“The calm belied the shape of things to come. Five Sabres were pulling up over Kharagpur to come in for an attack on Kalaikunda. CAC (Central Air Command) was short of radar cover, and no warning was received as the Sabres kept low. Squadron Leader Shabbir Syed led the Sabres from the direction of the Bay of Bengal, over uninhabited territory, where no observation post could relay their approach... Only three ack-ack guns were in a position to defend the airfield. The rest of the guns had arrived only the day before and had not yet been positioned.”

Canberras and Vampires went up in flames. “The PAF pilots rejoiced but got carried away and made the same mistake the IAF made over Sargodha. They sent a second mission to attack Kalaikunda.” And ran into Flight Lieutenant Alfred Cooke in his Hunter. “His camera film shows that he fired at four different Sabres and hit three.”

But the fact remains “chaos prevailed in the air defence establishment in the Eastern Sector. Enemy air raids and parachute drops were dreamt up and Air Defence Controllers lived under constant pressure to separate the genuine from the false alarms”.

WHAT THE WAR TAUGHT THE IAF
“IAF officers offer candid assessments...The Pakistanis were on much firmer ground as far as the planning of air operations were concerned. There was lot of confusion and chaos in our higher echelons, this being the first war of major proportions. ... The war prepared Indian forces for further conflicts ahead, and helped to develop and refine its strengths and weed out weaknesses. This showed results in in 1971.

“As (Squadron Leader) Don Conquest, who would go on to play a stellar role in the 1971 war, was to say: ‘In 1965, I hadn’t seen the war before so I couldn’t tell the difference. But when I flew again in 1971, the difference was clear.’”

PAF has the advantage, we are sure to have losses: Arjan told Chavanby Shiv Aroor
For Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, the 1965 war was a monumental challenge: as IAF chief at the time, his dated and old fighter fleet scrambled up against a blisteringly potent PAF, armed, alarmingly at the time, with air-to-air missiles. The war ended after just 21 days, but anxiety levels had begun to brim over long before operations began.

In an interview to The Sunday Express, Singh revealed, for the first time ever, his word of caution to then Defence Minister YB Chavan just before IAF fighters blasted off from Pathankot early on September 1, 1965.

‘‘It speaks volumes of Chavan that he gave us approval for air strikes in just five minutes. But I warned him about two things: that we were sure to have losses, since the PAF was very close at Sargodha, and I also told him that since the IAF and Army hadn’t had time to brief each other, it was possible that we would hit our own troops from the air. As it turned out, this did happen,’’ Singh said.

While things levelled out in the West, Singh admits that his force was ‘‘rather complacent’’ about the Eastern Sector. ‘‘Our commanders there should have been more aggressive. You can never win without being aggressive.’’

A more controversial aspect is the much-disected conversation between Singh and his PAF counterpart Asghar Khan earlier that year during Pakistan’s armoured incursion into Kutch. Khan called Singh and suggested that both air forces keep away from the conflict.

Later, Asghar Khan went on to justify the IAF’s lack of action in Kutch to his purported ‘‘threats’’ to Singh. That he did not consult Pak Army chief Gen Musa and President Ayub Khan, cost him his job two months later.

Singh, who remains in contact with his PAF counterparts of the time, remembers: ‘‘I agreed with him, because this was our stand too. We were just not prepared for a showdown in Kutch. Asghar was and is a close friend of mine, so is his successor Nur Khan. The high standards of efficiency of the PAF at the time were entirely because of Asghar’s dedication. They were both good colleagues and first class officers. When I visited Peshawar after the war, Nur Khan accommodated me in his own house.’’

In the final analysis, Singh feels the PAF was cautious because of limited resources, while the IAF kept away from full throttle because it thought the war would last much longer. The stakes for both, either way, were very high.

Raw Silk Route - The Opening of Nathu La

June 2006

Rows of prefab warehouses under corrugated iron sheets at Sherathang, 7 km shy of Nathula. A highway still in the making. A wary state watching what opening the borders to trade can do to its politics and demography. The big picture of Sino-Indian relations. And a cloud cover that almost every day reduces the historic pass to a zero-visibility zone.

Welcome to Silk Route II.

There is no escaping the steep sense of ambivalence that pervades Sikkim as it prepares for the historic opening of Nathula on its border with China, part of the old 563-km Silk Route from Siliguri to Tibet, closed since the 1962 war with China. The projections of the long-term benefits of border trade notwithstanding, the Pawan Chamling government has to grapple with more immediate issues back home—local political discontent, the skepticism of traders, the identity crisis of the Bhutia-Lepcha community.

The Directorate General of Foreign Trade has finalised a list of 15 import and 29 export items for trade between India and China that could start by the end of this month. This, even as the immediate beneficiaries of the reopening question the planning that has gone into the reopening of the trade route and the almost laughable infrastructure that is being readied for the kick-off.

The warehouses built of prefabricated materials at Sherathang will serve as a temporary trade and exchange area for goods from China but local traders believe the structures are as inadequate as inappropriate. The rush, they feel, is only explained by a somewhat hurried politico-diplomatic rationale.

The Sikkim government admits that the initial five-year phase will be symbolic, a sort of a “dry run”, but it has in its possession a study which envisions trade across the pass touching $1 billion by 2010. With the 56-km road that connects Nathula to Gangtok impossibly thin and unsuitable for heavy vehicles—and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) saying it can double-lane the road only by 2010—the estimates, even according to the Sikkim Chamber of Commerce, are more than far-fetched.

In the event, the two governments will progressively pick out other routes, including the one through Jelepla, with the tacit admission that Nathula alone cannot promise the large bilateral trade that bettered politico-economic diplomacy has promised.

Abhishek Goradia, a businessman from Kolkata who was at Nathula last week, looked startled: “They say there will be an opening in the next few weeks and they have just made the two sides reach the same level.” After a joint survey last September, the BRO has spent the past six months cutting 5.5 metres deeper into this side of the border to bring it on par with China’s naturally surfaced approach.

Siliguri-based truck fleet operator Vimal Bazla, who has operations in Gangtok with local partner Subhash Sarkar, believes the reopening of the pass will allow him to bring back Chinese goods from Gangtok to Siliguri instead of receiving empty trucks. Raaz Khan of Gangtok’s Deorali United Traders Association indicates that more products from China is good news: “For now, the import items are mainly hardware and raw materials, but over time, foreign money will pour in.”

But while there is no debate on the long-term dividends, the run-up to the opening, cautious Sikkimese businessmen say, is at best “a waiting game”. The Department of Industry & Commerce took a group of 14 traders to Sherathang at the end of May on a “familiarisation mission”.

Among them, Jeevan Agarwal, a third-generation immigrant to Sikkim from Rajasthan who plans to tap Chinese imports to expand his consumer electronics and tobacco businesses, says, “There is nothing here for proper trade. They are planning to expand it and make permanent structures, but I don’t know when that will happen.” Agarwal’s father used to ply the pre-1962 original Silk Route and even had a trading centre in Yatung in Tibet but Agarwal is not charmed.

And he has his reasons. The Chamling government has decided that import licences will, for the first five years, be given only to Sikkim subjects. “We have voting rights, everything else, but for five years, we won’t have a piece of the action,” says Raman Nath, a third-generation resident from Haryana, who sells smuggled shoes in Gangtok, where cheap Chinese products make their way from Dhulabari in Nepal to Siliguri through Kathmandu.

For now, the large non-Sikkimese Indian population and traders from outside will be forced to either wait for five years or partner with local businessmen. “There are no short cuts,” a state government official admits in private. “Everyone’s interests have to be met and it will take time. The economy of Sikkim has to be well protected because this is a big step we are taking.”

The native Sikkimese Bhutia-Lepcha community, which now accounts for 21 per cent of Sikkim’s population, is deeply disturbed by the prospect of the reopening leading to a deluge of refugees and the schisms this could engender. “Our main concern is being outnumbered in our own homeland,” says Tseten Tashi Bhutia, former tourism minister, vice-president of the Sikkim Pradesh Congress Committee and convenor of the Bhutia-Lepcha Apex Committee. “How long can we tolerate this? How long before AK-47s are taken up?” That Chamling’s Sikkim Democratic Front is an ally of the UPA, is a predicament for the PCC chief.

S Yongda, chief coordinator of the influential Assembly of Sikkim Monasteries, warns violence could be in the offing. The lone opposition MLA in the Sikkim Assembly, Acharya Tshering Lama, a Lepcha monk from the Congress, says he recommended to the ruling SDF that a white paper on Nathula be commissioned before further action, but was told that it could be done only by New Delhi as this was a bilateral issue.

Sikkim DSP Jivan Pradhan is also concerned that law and order would deteriorate once the border is opened. The problem, he feels, is beyond the beefing up of forces on the border. Another persistent view in Sikkim is that burgeoning trade and industry close to the border will progressively destroy the state’s nascent but successful eco-tourism and herbal medicine research industry that the Chamling government has built into a viable source of foreign money. Besides, the potential for commercial complexes, factories, markets and attendant service sector offices, the Sikkimese feel, has already been utilised.

The Sherathang trade zone already has “touristy” infrastructure —the “world’s highest” ATM, long-distance telephone switchboard and cyber-café.

On June 21, a six-member Indian team will return from Lhasa with final dates for the opening of the pass. As bulldozers clear away what still looks more like a granite quarry than a highway racing a fortnight’s deadline to face history, it’s a certainty that waiting and watching will be as much a preoccupation as trade itself on the new Silk Route.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Pushing the boats out

Like post-quake diplomacy in the mountains, post-tsunami diplomacy is paying off at sea, writes SHIV AROOR, in the lead-up to Navy Day on December 4, 2005.On December 4, when the Navy celebrates Navy Day, it will be with a sense that the year gone by has been one full of gains. The deep conflict of last year’s tsunami propelled to the fore a force willing to reach further out than it has before, and be, possibly for the first time ever, recognised unanimously as an established and growing maritime power in the region.

PM Manmohan Singh’s thoughts at the Combined Commanders Conference month reflected these gains. He said the future lay in maritime security, and friendly relations with like-minded neighbours were critical to energy security in the region. It was enough recognition of a year when the Navy truly came of age, demonstrating not just remarkable operational maturity in open sea, but also rapidly harnessing the fruits of a new-found global recognition thereafter.

Celebrating the 34th anniversary of the 1971 war on December 4, a day when Naval missiles hit Pakistani bases, a sense of urgency pervades Naval Headquarters. The long, gruelling months of post-tsunami relief across whole sectors in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), resulted almost instantaneously in deeply altered perceptions of the Navy. The unprecedented diplomatic response to the relief operations boiled down to deeply valuable strategic pacts with countries strewn across the region.

Even China — the only country that the Indian Navy will voluntarily voice its concern about — has reached out. But notwithstanding Beijing’s string-of-pearls strategy to accumulate access points all the way from the Gulf of Hormuz to the South China Sea, strategic perceptions within the Navy in just the last eleven months have begun to see deep synergies working with the People’s Liberation Army across the sensitive energy sea lanes in South Asia.

Even then, the decidedly improved equation with Beijing is only one of the seeming fallouts of post-tsunami diplomacy in the region. While expending a strong focus on revitalising relations with Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand that flank the globally critical Strait of Malacca which house energy lanes critical to every country in the region, the Navy has also found wisdom in consolidating its traditional friendships with the smaller island nations in the open Indian Ocean, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius and Japan in the Far East.

Admiral Prakash, who has made it a point to busy himself this year with visits to all of these countries, confesses that interest in operating and learning from the Indian Navy has never been more pronounced. So while it continues to engage with the Pacific navies of the US and Russia in joint exercises in the Arabian Sea, the Navy has recognised that this is the time for it to establish itself unequivocally as a South Asian maritime power.

But the Navy has been and continues to be careful not to project itself too much as a principally peace-time force, a perception that the Navy chief believes was amplified by post-tsunami activity. It has therefore carefully evolved the new found channels of diplomacy to also be useful pathways for strategic power projection. In June, the Navy chief took a complement of warships to the South East on a ceremonial visit, including for the first time ever, the aircraft carrier INS Viraat. The visit was measured, but the show of strength anything but subtle.

But for a strategic vision that was supposed to, in the medium-term, focus on India’s maritime neighbourhood, the Navy has decided to speed things up. In the words of a former Navy chief at a recent military gathering, “We are now planting seeds in the Pacific.” Admittedly, the Navy’s movement far into the Pacific is still restricted by operational requirements, but the wisdom in engaging Pacific nations has not passed it by. Since October, the Navy has arrived at understandings with Japan and Chile. In the future, this could stretch to Australia, and involve movement for exercises with the US Navy off Hawaii and the West Coast of America.

But Central to the Navy’s clearly enhanced maritime security profile is a deep realisation that for it to maintain its new-found prowess, it must rapidly fill gaping holes in its operational strength as well — good relations, it believes, will ultimately be predicated on respect. Wasting no time in the haze of goodwill, it has established its inordinate lack of heavy sea-lift and mass landing capabilities. For the former, it is already in the market for a large number of deck helicopters. For the latter, it has decided to purchase a US Navy Austin-class landing vessel, the USS Trenton, and then build its own expeditiously.

The rationale for delivering more men and materials over larger distances neatly straddles the line between peace-time relief operations and open battle mission requirements. The serendipitous felicity of projecting what would otherwise be a controversial requirement is not lost on the Navy’s senior brass.

A Vice Admiral with one of the Navy’s operational commands recently said, “We are ultimately a fighting force. If the assets we need can be meaningfully used for peacetime operations, that would come to define reputation we are after. I believe we have made commendably progress in just the last few months?”

Nobody in the Navy denies that the work of the last eleven months has been but a good start to much larger and more critical gains. With a government that has promised to look into its expanding interests with sincerity, the Navy’s strategic thinkers must, to use and old yet apt cliche, push the boat out.