Shimla: The simmering discontentment over the absence of basic amenities in the area along the border with China prompted two men in Himachal Pradesh to do the unthinkable - seek help from across the frontier for economic prosperity. It's landed them in jail, facing sedition charges.
The police Aug 25 arrested two residents of the Pin valley in Kaza subdivision in the picturesque Spiti Valley in Lahaul-Spiti district, some 420 km from the state capital, for provoking the locals to make pro-China remarks as the Indian government had failed to address their grievances.
The demand has come at a time when the central government aims to strengthen infrastructure and promote human settlements along the India-China border.
Chering Tobge, president of Kungri panchayat, and Lobsang Thondup, former president of the Sangam panchayat are currently in judicial custody till Sep 10.
The locals, say police, are reportedly upset over the government's failure to repair a bridge in the Pin Valley that was damaged two years ago. The bridge over the Kirnee rivulet connects at least 12 villages.
"During interrogation, they said they provoked the locals to make pro-China remarks to draw the attention of the (Indian) government towards their problems," a senior police officer, who wished not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, told IANS.
Local legislator Ravi Thakur, the vice chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, said there was no central policy to systematically develop basic infrastructure in the border areas.
"In fact, lack of basic amenities is the reason for the migration of people from the border to other areas (in India)," he said, adding: "The people of Spiti are simple and little demanding, but a continuous neglect may create problems".
Thakur told IANS that though the demand to seek China's help for development is regrettable, their grievances are genuine.
In a letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi Aug 25, the legislator drew his attention towards the local problems.
He sought to strengthen the BSNL network, open more schools and provide liberal funding for local area development.
"The development of northeastern states has been taken care of (by) a separate ministry, the Ministry for Development of North Eastern Region, and grant of a non-lapsable fund. However, there is no such thing available for the Himalayan region, i.e., Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir," said the letter.
The Buddhist-dominated Lahaul-Spiti district in the Himalayan terrain, with elevations ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 feet above sea level, shares a porous border with China.
The district has no town and the population is rural, living in 521 villages.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has raised objections to the sedition charges slapped against the two locals.
"They were protesting against the failure of district administration and the state government to ensure development in the area," said CPI-M state secretariat member Tikender Singh Panwar.
He said lack of development remains a major issue in areas bordering China in the state.
"As Spiti is located very close to the China border, the threat to launch 'Chalo China' slogan is not new and does not draw from any ideology. Even in the past one of the pioneer tribal leaders had given the slogan 'Peking nazdik hai, Delhi door hai' (Beijing is close and Delhi is far off)," he said.
Former Lahaul-Spiti BJP legislator Ram Lal Markanday said basic amenities in the entire district, mainly in Spiti, is lacking. "The condition of roads, government dispensaries and schools are bad. It's is the duty of the state to redress the grievances of the locals".
"There is no college in the entire Spiti Valley and our children have to go out for higher education. Many can't afford that too. Most of the time the roads linking Spiti with the rest of the world remain blocked due to weather vagaries, hampering transportation of crops," said Tashi Dolma, a farmer at Kaza village.
Octogenarian P.S. Negi said the health services are quite bad. "For want of health specialists one has to travel either to Shimla or to Chandigarh."
The Lahaul-Spiti district, spread over 13,835 sq km, is a place of remote, untouched beauty with just 31,528 people.
The climatic conditions of the area are harsh as much of the land falls under a cold desert where the mercury drops below minus 20 degrees Celsius during winter.