21 November 2023

Development, demographic changes around ‘Great Bend’ of Brahmaputra: Chinese obsession, India’s nightmare

In December 2020, The Global Times announcement of a mega hydropower station on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Siang-Brahmaputra) definitively had a propaganda aspect for Beijing; it was just a few months after the Ladakh intrusions, and Beijing had started realising that India would resist the People’s Liberation Army in Eastern Ladakh.

Around the same time, the Chinese President had argued in a new book, On the Party’s Propaganda and Ideological Work, that the Chinese people should be proud of “the excellent traditional Chinese culture nurtured by the Chinese nation’s 5,000 years of civilised history”. Xi Jinping had added that: “The charm of Chinese culture should be used in international propaganda, to spread a gentle image of the CCP as part of its soft power.”
But China is not always ‘soft’ and ‘gentle’, and in the meantime, Beijing has started building, like never before, infrastructure in the area of the ‘Great Bend’ of the Yarlung Tsangpo.

The announcement of the utopian project of a mega dam, which has serious implications for India downstream, is also a way to show that the Emperor can take up the most impossible tasks.

Already in 2013, China had done the ‘impossible’ by opening up Tibet’s last sacred place to tourism. The construction of the 3,310-metre Galongla tunnel, built at an altitude of 3,750 metres, linked for the first time Metok County (also known as Pemakoe) to Bome County in the north.

Metok was then the only county in China that could not be accessed by car. With the opening of a tunnel, the road reached Metok town, crossing over six rivers.

The Bailey Report

Captain FM Bailey, a British intelligence officer, mentioned Pemakoe in his Report on an Exploration on the North-East Frontier in 1913. Let us remember that it is based on this report that the McMahon Line was drawn.

Bailey described the area: “The valley of the Tsangpo below the gorge is known as Pemakoe, a vague term meaning a district having no definite boundaries. Formerly, this valley was inhabited by Abors, but about 100 years ago, a large number of people from eastern Bhutan and the neighbourhood of Tawang immigrated into this country. They came in search of a land of promise, which ancient prophecies had called Pemako and which was believed to be near the frontiers of India.”

Sacred Place

For the Tibetans, the region has always been the Roof of the World’s most pristine and sacred place; the area around the Great Bend of the river was said to be the home of the Goddess Dorjee Pagmo, Tibet’s Protecting Deity. Many believed that Pemakoe was the sacred realm often referred to in their holy scriptures as the last hidden Shangrila. It is also known that the great Indian tantric master Padmasambhava visited the place during the eighth century and tamed the local spirits to conceal spiritual scriptures for future generations.

The new road and, at a later stage, several hydropower plants will not only be responsible for the disappearance of one of the last sacred places on this planet but will also have serious environmental, strategic, and military consequences for India. It might be a dream for China, but it will be a nightmare for India.

Ian Baker, a Himalayan and Buddhist scholar and author of The Heart of the World, the hidden land of Pemakoe, who visited Pemakoe several times, explained: “The very eastern end of the Himalayan range is where the [Yarlung] Tsangpo Brahmaputra river makes this great bend, a hairpin bend, around the peak of Namcha Barwa, at the very terminus of the Himalayan range. These are described as the texts that provide liberation by hearing about the great and blissful land of Pemako in words attributed to Padmasambhava. That is the path to enlightenment.”

He observed that he tried to follow “the outer and inner circle into Pemako, leading into a kind of paradisical round at the very heart of the circumambulation.”

The mythical place may soon be destroyed by the Chinese engineers: “Gyala Peri at around 23,891 feet and Namche Barwa at more than 26,000 feet are what make it to the Guinness Book of Records claim of being the world’s deepest point… That is why it is considered the world’s deepest gorge or the deepest point, although it is not a canyon like the Grand Canyon. It is the overall sense of the vast scale which is very hard to capture in a photograph. This makes it an extraordinary place,” wrote Baker.

This is obviously attractive for the dam-building lobbies.

For many Chinese engineers, it is enough to know that the Yarlung Tsangpo river tumbles down over 3,000 metres in less than 200 km, giving the gorge one of the greatest hydropower potentials in the world. It would make any emperor in Beijing dream.

Media Campaign

Recently, a large number of articles and videos in the Chinese media ‘celebrated’ the ten years of Metok Road, “turning a natural chasm into a thoroughfare.”

Apart from the loss of sacredness, it is an extremely serious change for India downstream, particularly the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, as a new road via the Doshung-la tunnel is also coming up.

China Tibet Network News noted: “On October 31, 2013, the Pome-Metok Highway was put into operation, ending the history of Metok being blocked by roads; in October 2022, the main project of the Pai-Metok Highway was completed, and there will soon be a second traffic artery in and out of Metok.”

The article pointed out that in Tibetan, Metok means ‘flower’: “When Guru Padmasambhava came here, he was attracted by the magical scenery in front of him, so he practised and preached Dharma here and named Metok, or Pemakoe, a secret paradise hidden in a secret realm… Ten years ago, this place was still an ‘isolated plateau island’.”

Changing the Demography

But there is another extremely worrying factor for India: China has decided to change the demography of these border areas.

An article mentions “The Great Unity in the Small Village of Metok”.

The ‘unity’ refers to the new ‘bond’ between the Han settlers and the Tibetans or Menpa locals.

The reporter speaks of a newly-built village called Badeng in Drepung Township, just north of the McMahon Line, and of a ‘foreign son-in-law’ living in this small village: “Tan Chucheng, together with his wife, warmly welcomed us into the two-story building they had moved into more than a year ago,” says the article.

Tan Chucheng, an ethnic Han, came to Metok in 2021 as a member of the Three Gorges Group’s Badeng Village Task Force. “He never imagined that he would be able to marry Rinchen Drolma, an ethnic Menba girl from Badeng Village.”

The Chinese migrant says, “We slowly came together after being set up by the villagers and members of the village-based task force.”

This border village is the place where Tan and Rinchen’s destiny began, writes the reporter: “[It was] the beginning of a better and happier life for the villagers of Baden Village. Due to its remote location, the original Baden village is a poor village in the entire Metok County; the village was only connected to electricity in 2018, and the villagers watched TV in 2019.”

However, in August 2021, the whole village of Baden was relocated to the new village, and the villagers moved from a small house into a two-storey small house: “The living environment has become better, and everyone is looking forward to a further increase in income. 2021, the arrival of the Three Gorges Group’s village task force gave Badeng Village, which had relied on planting crops, raising poultry and making bamboo weaving as its main source of income, a new source of income.”

Two years ago, Xinhua had already touched upon the issue: “According to statistics, there are more than 560 multiethnic families in Metok (read Hans married to Tibetans or Monpas). People of different ethnic groups help each other in farming and animal husbandry, and children of different ethnic groups study in the same classroom. People here celebrate New Year’s Day, Lunar New Year, Tibetan New Year, ‘Dashiang’ folk culture festival of the Monpa ethnic group, and other ethnic festivals.”

One can imagine what will happen when the construction of the hydropower plants starts. Tens of thousands of migrant workers will come and get married. It is indeed a new danger for India.


Originally Published in Firstpost on 11 November 2023