Nepalis lose livelihoods after being shut out of tri-junction areaIn the old days when trade was flourishing, Nepali traders used to import goods from Taklakot using porters, mules, sheep and horses.
Many Nepalis living in the country's mountainous northwestern corner did well trading and working in the tri-junction area at Taklakot where the frontiers of Nepal, India and China meet. After the border was shut down in 2019, many locals lost their main source of livelihood.
Located at an altitude of 4,755 metres, Taklakot or Purang is the first city in Tibet travellers encounter after leaving Nepal. The place is also popular as an acclimatising stop among Indian pilgrims going on the holy journey known as Kailash Manasarovar Yatra.
Historically, the economy of the far western mountain region was based on bartering Nepali grain for Tibetan salt. The trade dried up after the advent of factory-made iodised salt.
From 1999 to 2019, Taklakot was a trade and work destination for Nepalis, and the border town attracted hordes of seasonal workers from Bajhang, Humla, Dolpa, Darchula and Mugu.
High wages were the main reason why Nepali youths streamed to the Tibetan market to work. They could earn 100 to 200 yuan (Rs1,800 to Rs3,600) per day working as a labourer. The money they made in Taklakot in one season was enough to meet their expenses for the entire year.
Nepali businessmen flourished too. The traders used to import Chinese goods that were snapped up by Indian customers from the bordering towns. Nepali traders carried on a highly profitable business for a long time.
The closure of the trade route hit hundreds of Nepalis. For trader Bimal Kumar Bohara of Byas Rural Municipality in Darchula, the closure of the border was a monumental disaster.
“Trade has come to a standstill after the Chhoti Customs Office, set up by the government on the Nepal-China border to trade with Taklakot Bazaar, was closed. It caused loss of income and employment for many Nepalis,” said Bohara.
The customs office was closed six months before the Covid-19 pandemic started in early 2020. “But the closure of the customs did not stop locals of Byas from doing business in Taklakot,” said Bohara.
Before the pandemic brought its own hardships, business took a hit when the Maoists launched an insurgency in 1996 that continued for a decade. “For the last two years, no one has been allowed to enter Taklakot,” said Bohara.
A major source of income for Nepali traders doing various businesses in Taklakot has dried up completely. Most of the families of Chhangru and Tinker in Byas Rural Municipality depended on the business in Taklakot.
“The livelihoods of hundreds of people have been hurt as there has been no trade for a long time,” Bohara said. "I have not been able to go to Taklakot for two years. All my goods in the shop in Taklakot may have been damaged,” Bohara said. “The border closure has ruined us.”
Annually, over 20,000 Indian pilgrims used to visit Kailash Manasarovar in Tibet through the Nepalgunj-Simikot-Hilsa route in far western Nepal.
The season for the holy journey, popularly known as Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, normally begins in May and lasts till October.
During the main season, local traders travel to Taklakot to open shops as the market comes alive due to the arrival of hundreds of Indian pilgrims. Nepali entrepreneurs are wondering whether China will open the border point or not.
Thimpu Mahar, a local from Darchula, who has been trading in Gutgaun of Taklakot for the past 25 years, says trade has come down to zero. Magar too has not been able to go to Taklakot for the past two years.
Nepali traders were running hotels and shops selling Nepali products such as wooden utensils, handicrafts, carpets, bamboo, leather and other handicraft items in Taklakot. Honey, ghee, hard cheese, chilli, black pepper and herbs were also sought-after products in Taklakot.
There was no customs office on the India-China border before 2014. Trade with China at the tri-junction swelled after a trade agreement was signed between India and China.
Mohan Datta Badu, a trader from Khalanga, the headquarters of Darchula district, said there were no Chinese goods in the Indian market until 2013. “Now the Indian market is flooded with Chinese goods but no Nepalis supply them,” he said.
Until seven years ago, Indians were the major buyers of Chinese readymade goods and clothes that were imported into Nepal. Indian shoppers used to come to Nepal to buy Chinese products,” Badu said. “That market has gone now.”
Nepali traders also exported Indian goods to Taklakot.
Kalyan Singh Dhami, who used to import goods from Taklakot, said the trade route was closed before the Covid-19 pandemic due to lack of maintenance of the Darchula-Tikar dirt road.
China is Nepal's second largest trading partner. According to the Trade and Export Promotion Centre, Nepal imported goods worth Rs233.92 billion from China in the last fiscal year 2020-21. But Nepal’s exports to the northern neighbour were valued at only Rs1 billion.
Experts say the border closure is a kind of unseen trade embargo imposed by China as it has prevented the export Nepali goods.
From January 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread, there was a near halt in the arrival of cargo containers from China to Nepal. Trade still has not resumed fully, with the northern neighbour placing strict restrictions at the border.
Back in the good old days when trade was flourishing, Nepali traders used to import goods from Taklakot using porters, mules, sheep and horses.
Readymade garments and other goods imported from Taklakot used to be supplied to Kathmandu, Dhangadhi and other urban markets as soon as the road network reached the district headquarters. Tinker was an important trade point.
Locals complain that the government has not shown any interest in operating the border checkpoint even though it is a short and easy way to reach Kailash Manasarovar.
Niranjan Budathoki, a local from Tinker village, said he used to import goods from different cities of India through Sitapul Chhoti Customs to Nepal and then re-export them to Taklakot.
"Until a decade and a half ago, we conducted traditional trade with Taklakot," Budathoki said. “In the 1960s, commerce with China boomed but it failed to maintain momentum due to lack of infrastructure.”
The trade with Taklakot has been declining since the small customs office at Tinker was shut down during the Maoist conflict. The customs office has been closed since 2001, but trade with China did not stop completely, said Bohara.
Nepali traders used to bring Chinese goods from Taklakot over Indian roads and through Khalanga customs till 2012. Customs officials say no goods from Taklakot have entered Nepal after the dirt road from Khalanga to Chhangrung was closed in 2012.