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Tibet in the time of high economic growth

N. Ram


Unprecedented economic growth, rises in living standards, education, infrastructure development, job creation, central government subsidies, and political policies implementing the autonomy mandated in the Chinese Constitution are transforming life, work, and mindsets, especially of the young,

in sparsely populated Tibet. And the railway is making a big difference.


— Photo: N. Ram, June 2007.

Lhasa’s Potala Palace, founded in the 7th century and the symbol of old Tibet, is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Starting from age-old isolation from the mainstream, a chequered history, a low economic base, and a unique plateau environment averaging higher than 4000 metres in altitude, Tibet — the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), to give it its proper name — is on a roll. Last year its economy grew by 13.2 per cent compared with 10.5 per cent for China as a whole. Its GDP climbed to a level of 29 billion yuan, approximately $4 billion (still a tiny part of China’s $2 .68 trillion GDP). With foodgrain production touching 920,000 tonnes, the region was able to feed all its people. According to Nima Tsiren, a confident Tibetan who is vice-chairman of the regional government, TAR’s fiscal revenue grew by 14 per cent over 2006, which enabled about 8 per cent of the increase to be distributed. The per capita annual net income of its townspeople was 8900 yuan (compared with 6448 yuan in 2000), and of its farmers and herdsmen 2435 yuan (compared with 1331 yuan in 2000).

The arrival of material prosperity, steady population growth, rises in living standards, education and skills training, and in general the process of modernisation are transforming life, work, and mindsets, especially of the young who make up the bulk of the Tibetan population. This became clear during a week-long visit in June 2007 to TAR and (for comparative reference) some Tibetan autonomous areas in the neighbouring provinces of Qinghai and Yunnan.

The effects of the transformation are conspicuous on Lhasa roads and streets, with their fast-moving vehicular traffic and rising modern buildings and commercial complexes. They can be witnessed on Barkor Street, known locally as ‘the Saint Road,’ and in the crowded bazaar around Jokhang Temple; in the vicinity of the Dalai Lama’s long-vacant Potala Palace; in the fast-developing transportation, telecommunications, and energy infrastructure; and at another high altitude wonder, the 6.2 square kilometre Lhalu Wetland in the capital’s suburbs, which is reckoned annually to absorb 78,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide and produce 53,700 tonnes of oxygen. The results are on view in surrounding villages, especially in the households of farmers who have prospered thanks to their hard work and thrift, the large number of working hands in the family, central government subsidies, and new opportunities offered by the construction boom. The positive effects are visible in the schools, kindergartens, and medical centres dispensing Tibetan medicine, which is acquiring cult status round the world. They are also on view in the bustling, grain-producing and industrialising Xigaze prefecture located in TAR’s mid-south.

Engineering marvel

The most dramatic change since I visited Tibet seven years ago has come with the Qinghai-Tibet railway — a 1956-km engineering marvel that now links Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, with Lhasa. The railway system marked its first anniversary on July 1, 2007. The section between Golmud, a city of the Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, and the Tibetan capital took five years and 33 billion yuan to build. The world’s highest railway, Mr. Tsiren exulted, “has ushered in a new millennium for Tibet. It is the realisation of a dream of two generations, of great importance to the Tibetan people. It has greatly reduced the cost of transportation. We have taken one more step towards the modernisation of Tibet and the deeper integration of the regional economy with the Chinese economy.”

It is a big step indeed. A point made regularly in the Chinese media is that the Qinghai-Tibet railway is a refutation of Paul Theroux’s 1988 prophecy: “The Kunlun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa.” For good measure, the aficionado added: “That is probably a good thing. I thought I liked railways until I saw Tibet, and then I realised that I like wilderness much more.” Theroux’s failed prophecy typifies the romantic, change-nothing view of Tibet, which prefers it to be frozen in its remoteness, its inaccessibility, its mysterious wildness, its ‘unchanging’ culture and traditions. Taking the cue from ‘independence for Tibet’ propaganda, the romantics see the railway as the ultimate destabiliser of Tibet’s culture, religion, demography, and environment.

Unnatural beauty

The 26-hour journey from Xining is quite crowded — we, a group of five Indian journalists and our Chinese interpreter, were six to a small cabin in a ‘soft bed’ compartment — and has its inconveniences. But only the churlish will complain. As the train climbs into Tibet, often touching 100 kilometres per hour, you are offered breathtaking snapshots of snow-clad mountains, plateaus, valleys, lakes, azure skies, yaks, antelopes, and the rare human being. To the literary-minded, the topographies and landforms seem straight out of Robert Browning’s poems. Nothing you have read or seen in photographs prepares you for the vastness, the remoteness, the unnatural ‘Shangri-la’ beauty, the flat-versus-mountainous, dry-versus-riverine, snowy-versus-grey-green-blue, fertile-versus-barren singularity of this once-great-sea that has avatared into the ‘roof of the world.’ An additional treat: you can gauge the changing altitude with a simple measuring device that can be purchased in the dining car.

Tibet has less oxygen, more sunlight, longer hours of daylight, lower temperatures, less precipitation, more changeable weather, more great mountains and rivers, a larger collection of lakes and nature reserves, and a lower density of population than most people are used to. The digital display in the vestibule of our railway compartment is educative and the train is pressurised to assure passenger comfort and well-being. But over two visits in this decade, I have observed that so far as visiting Indian journalists are concerned, the health warnings — of breathing difficulty and altitude sickness, and against any kind of physical exertion and even taking baths on arrival in Lhasa — are exaggerated. In fact, as a rule, some of our Chinese hosts visiting Tibet for the first time seem to have greater problems adjusting to the high altitude. I feel this may have something to do with mindsets and expectations.

In a historical essay published in the New-York Daily Tribune in 1853, Karl Marx analysed the potential of the railway to end India’s “village isolation … this self-sufficient inertia … with a given scale of low conveniences … without the desires and efforts indispensable to social advance.” He famously predicted that “the railway system will … become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry” and, further, that “modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour.” The time and place were different, the circumstances colonial and brutally exploitative. Further, the historicity of Marx’s ‘unchanging’ self-sufficient village community has been challenged by Marxist and other Indian historians. But the analysis of the difference the railway can make is relevant to Tibet today.

Economic benefits

During the first ten months of the operation of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, TAR saw its foreign trade rise by 75 per cent — to $322 million. The trains have brought an influx of tourists, more than 2.5 million domestic and foreign tourists last year; and the number is expected to rise to three million this year. Taking the train to mysterious Tibet is becoming something of a national aspiration and it is affordable. Investment is likely to follow tourism and trade. Chinese officials project that by 2010 the Qinghai-Tibet railway will transport 75 per cent of the autonomous region’s inbound cargo, tremendously lower transportation costs, and double the tourist revenue. As they see it, the railway symbolises ‘the right of Tibetans to seek development,’ catch up with the rest of rising China, and open themselves more to the outside world.

Over the next decade, the railway will be extended to three more lines in Tibet, one connecting Lhasa with Nyingchi to the east, another with Xigaze in the west, and the third linking Xigaze with Yadong on the China-India border. A luxury tourist train offering five-star comfort, like India’s ‘Palace on Wheels,’ is in the works and might be unveiled later this year.

Apprehensions about the railway’s adverse effects on the environment and wildlife have proved exaggerated if not wholly baseless. An unprecedented 1.5 billion yuan package of environment protection measures, including systems to store garbage and waste water and treat them in designated stations, and 33 special passageways for antelopes and other wildlife, has been put in place. Technologies of heat preservation, slope protection, and roadbed ventilation have reportedly come to the aid of the plateau’s frozen tundra. A long-term monitoring system for water, air, noise, and ecology has been set up by watchful scientists. What is more, the task of greening the 700-km Tibet section of the railway — planting 26,000 hectares of trees over the next five years — has begun.

Threat from global warming

The real threat to Tibet’s environment comes not from the railway but from global warming. According to the Chinese media, a leading climate change scientist, Professor Dong Guangrong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, estimates that the ‘roof of the world’ glacier, which constitutes 47 per cent of China’s total glacier coverage, is shrinking at the rate of 7 per cent a year. He warns that the melting glacier will trigger droughts, expand desertification, and worsen sandstorms.

Aside from the railway, the development of a new kind of physical infrastructure — highways, paved roads, bridges, power lines, telecommunications, irrigation channels, modern housing, and so forth — is there for all to see. The plan target is to build, by 2010, ‘high-class highways’ to connect 100 per cent of Tibet’s townships and 80 per cent of its administrative villages; and to convert 80 per cent of the roads into blacktops. Expressways, however, are considered unsuitable for a region that has only 2.3 persons per square km.

Old and new

As you speed along the highway from Lhasa to Xigaze for five hours or more, you are offered rapid frame alternations of the new and the old, the modern and the traditional, in a heady mixture of sensory experiences. A surprise is how easily you can connect to the outside world: the gprs on your mobile phone (or pda) works along much of the Lhasa-Xigaze highway. While browsing the internet for news of the outside world or answering your email, you can catch a glimpse of how the bulk of Tibetans live: in mud and stone houses; cultivating small plots and tending livestock; prayer flags fluttering; primitive farming and nomadic practices; basic living conditions; colourful long skirts, striped aprons, beads, and incongruous cowboy hats; people squatting road-side; and little girls and boys in school uniform on their way home.

That Tibet under the Dalai Lama-headed theocracy had no schools worth speaking about, and that the illiteracy rate was 95 per cent, are indisputable facts. From such an abysmal base, it is hard not to make substantial progress. The Chinese socialist system showcases the “fast, coordinated, and healthy development of education” in TAR as a solid achievement of liberation and especially of the post-1979 reform. According to Mr. Tsiren, there are 350,000 students enrolled in the autonomous region’s educational institutions. He adds that school enrolment covers 96.5 per cent of children of school-entry age and that the programme of nine years compulsory and free education has been completed in 46 of the region’s 73 counties. Official sources place the adult illiteracy rate in TAR below 10 per cent, which is way below the Indian average. In addition, central government preferential policies have enabled about 14,000 Tibetan students to study in scores of key high schools and higher educational institutions in 20 of China’s provinces and municipalities. It has been estimated that up to January 2007, this ‘fraternal funding’ of Tibetan education by these provinces and municipalities aggregated $74 million, in addition to the 2000 teachers and educational officials they sent to work in Tibet. There is clearly a lesson in this for India, and especially for the Hindi-speaking States.

The monasteries are distinctly old world but there are plenty of signs of modernisation here too. Whether you go to the 16th century Kumbum monastery in the vicinity of Xining or to Sera at the foot of Tatipu Hill in suburban Lhasa or to Ganden Sumtsen Ling in Diqing county in Yunnan, the monks wear their traditional robes and debate in the animated style of Tibetan Buddhism. But they also carry mobiles, drive automobiles, collect fees for allowing photography inside the most hallowed chambers, follow satellite television, and perform for tourists.

Worldly wise monks

In the north-western suburbs of Xigaze city, a hub of Tibet’s modernisation, we visited the imposing Tashihungpo monastery, the seat of successive Panchen Lamas. Founded in the 15th century by Gandain Zhuba, a disciple of Master Tsongkapa and the (posthumously recognised) first Dalai Lama, it is one of the six major monasteries of the dominant Gelug sect. I duly paid 125 yuan for the privilege of using my camera, a Nikon D70, inside the magnificent memorial hall where the 10th Panchen Lama is entombed. A vigilant teenage monk materialised from nowhere to make the point that I could not use a second camera, a small digital Leica, without paying an additional 125 yuan. In a Tibetan autonomous area in Yunnan Province, we even visited a monk of middling rank from a famous monastery in his rural home, where he is allowed to spend part of the year with his parents and siblings.

The development gap between town and country is certainly a matter for concern in Tibet — as in the rest of China and also in India — but a high level of central government subsidies and organised social sector assistance from China’s more developed provinces and municipalities are targeted at narrowing the gap. China has adopted a strategy of westward development to overcome the historical backwardness of this vast part of the country.

With a speeding up of the development of industry, the service sector, infrastructure, and education; with the modernisation of agriculture and livestock practices; with adequate job creation; with an all-out poverty eradication effort; with an enlightened programme of environmental protection; and with scrupulous respect for the language, culture, religious beliefs and constitutionally mandated autonomy of the Tibetan people, rising China is eminently capable of achieving the all-round development of this autonomous region, which has been problematical in the past. Seldom does a giant country get such an opportunity to concentrate its burgeoning resources, internal and external, to improve the lives of 2.81 million of its citizens, accounting for 0.21 per cent of the national population, dotted across 1.22 million square kilometres, actually one eighth of China’s land area.

(An article on the politics of Tibet will follow.)

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