The electoral hubbub gives hope for a revival in Tatopani

Party workers have energized Tatopani with marches and rallies ahead of election day, raising hopes among residents that the city’s old vibrancy will return.

Once a hotspot for transit trade on the northern border with China, Tatopani has lain abandoned since the 2015 earthquake destroyed infrastructure and trans-Himalayan trade came to a standstill.

The electoral campaign revolves around a platform: to revive the glory of Tatopani.

Tatopani has an illustrious history as the starting point of the legendary caravan route to Tibet; and in its modern avatar, the border town handled most of Nepal’s overland trade with China.

The 2015 earthquake was just the beginning of Tatopani’s descent into insignificance. It faces myriad problems like recurring dry landslides, deserted and crumbling markets, half-destroyed houses, and terrible roads.

Traders and residents have no idea when the international border will open or close.

“In the 2017 elections, we vowed to vote for the candidate who promised to open the border,” said Sunmaya Tamang of Bhotekoshi Rural Municipality.

“There is no proper checkpoint for the public. The existing infrastructure is in poor condition. The situation has not changed in the last five years.

Immigration staff and security personnel deployed at the border checkpoint live in a dilapidated building.

The national flag of Nepal which was planted at the ruined gate of Araniko under Liping Rock is about to fall. Other infrastructure in the border area is disintegrating.

“Political leaders are back with the same promises in their manifestos,” Tamang said.

Before the earthquake, when the border town was buzzing with the constant flow of trade, foreign tourists and Nepalese visitors thronged the shops lured by their cheap wares.

The government used to raise billions of dollars in revenue. Long lines of container trucks arrived in Tatopani from China, providing jobs for hundreds. Dozens of hotels and restaurants came to serve the growing population.

Locals have lost hope that Tatopani will ever see its former bustle again.

Agni Prasad Sapkota, incumbent chairman of the Maoist party, and former minister Mohan Bahadur Basnet of the Nepalese Congress were the main contenders for Sindhupalchok-1 in the 2017 elections.

Sapkota, which received backing from UML, had promised a redesign of Tatopani as its primary goal. He got 40,000 votes and beat Basnet.

“Sapkota became Speaker of the House and Basnet became Minister of Information and Communication. But they never solved the problem at the border,” Tamang said.

Hundreds of people have lost their jobs, the market is dead. Instead of trying to revive trade through Tatopani, the Chinese government has opened another border transit point at Kerung further west. Tatopani then virtually closed, according to locals.

Sapkota is not contesting the election this time.

Maoist party leader Madhav Sapkota and former UML provincial minister Saresh Nepal are vying for a seat in the House of Representatives.

Former Minister Sher Bahadur Tamang competes with Basnet at Sindhupalchok-2.

Madhav Sapkota, a new face, and Nepal are making big promises to voters, and major items on the agenda include returning the Tatopani border to its former glory.

A week ago, Sapkota, who reached Tatopani with senior government officials and political leaders, held a mass meeting and assured residents that he would take the initiative to fully open the border.

“Many ministers and government officials failed to keep their promises when they were in power. We have no hope that the new ones will keep their promises either after winning the elections,” said Salden Sherpa, a local shopkeeper .

“That’s why locals aren’t very enthusiastic about the elections.”

But Sherpa thinks the new faces will do something.

China, on its side of the border, has almost completed the infrastructure required for an international border. On the Nepal side, everything seems deserted.

China is working fast as it has prepared a 7 km road between Miteri Bridge and Khasa and built other technical infrastructure.

There are 20 to 25 half-destroyed and dilapidated houses in Liping Bazaar. Nobody lives there. Three families live near Liping Bridge.

Since the 2015 earthquake and the 2016 Bhotekoshi flood, heavy landslides have continued to occur along the border. A 26 km section of the Kodari highway that was damaged by the floods has not been fully repaired.

Before the earthquake, more than 50,000 foreign tourists flocked to Tatopani every year.

More than 40,000 Chinese tourists entered Nepal through the Tatopani road. After the closure of the Tatopani border, Indian pilgrims could not visit Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet.

The number of domestic tourists who came to bathe in the hot springs and shop in Khasa has plunged to an all-time low.

Suku Sherpa, a ward member of Bhotekoshi-4 Rural Municipality, said that due to government negligence, there is only one-way traffic at the border.

Chinese authorities allow goods to pass through Nepal but prohibit Nepalese exports to China.

There is no adequate infrastructure for immigration officers, armed police force personnel and Nepalese police at the international border post.

“The government has completely ignored Tatopani. The Rural Municipality’s budget is nominal. We alone cannot do anything,” the ward member said.

The Tatopani border was opened to freight traffic four years after the 2015 earthquake. When Covid-19 hit, the border was completely closed again.

The border closure has tied up 1,400 freight containers, 2,800 drivers and 5,000 workers.

“Due to the shorter distance to Kathmandu, traders prefer Tatopani trading point for importing and exporting goods. But there are frequent issues that impede smooth functioning of the border,” trader Dorje Lama said.

“As China only allows a few containers at a time to cross the northern border into Nepal, it has taken months for shipments of ready-made products and other products worth millions to arrive. in Kathmandu during the previous Dashain,” Lama said.

Traders said that due to the hassle of importing goods through Rasuwagadhi and Tatopani, they had re-routed their shipments through seaports in India.

“Traders have all fled Tatopani. There is no charm here,” Lama said.

“Traders don’t want to bring their imports from China through the southern border because of the higher cost and longer time,” Lama said. “But no one understands Chinese politics.”

Raj Kumar Basnet, chairman of the Sindhupalchok Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said they and the Nepalese Trans-Himalayan Border Trade Association have submitted memoranda to the prime minister, ministers and government officials every six months requiring the border point of Tatopani to be improved.

“When the issue is made public, the Chinese authorities increase the number of containers allowed to enter Nepal from 10 to 30 per day,” Basnet said. “After a few days, the number of containers drops to three or six. This flawed policy is giving traders a hard time,” he said.

“We are continuously putting pressure on the government,” Basnet said.

According to Daya Nidhi KC, Head of Tatopani Dry Port and Customs Office, closures are still being imposed in Tibet and as a result trade in Nepal is disrupted.

“That’s why there is a quota now. Tibet only allows three containers from Shigatse daily.