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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A Tale of Two Train Stations

November 17, 2009

Arun Duggal
The Wall Street Journal
November 16, 2009

Train stations, on the other hand, are public
transportation buildings of class and
distinction. Most of them, constructed over 100
years ago, reflect the architecture, technology,
art and social structure of that era. Some of the
remarkable ones include Grand Central Terminal in
New York, Union Station in Washington DC,
Waterloo Station in London as well as the train
stations of Paris, St. Petersburg, Zurich,
Istanbul and Tokyo. In India, we have some very
impressive train stations: Chhatrapati Shivaji
(Victoria) Terminus, Howrah Station, Madras
Central Station , Delhi Railway Station and
Shimla Railway station, each unique in its own way.

There are hardly any new major railway stations
constructed these days with the exception of two
new train stations that have come up in this
region in the last few years: the Srinagar
Railway Station and the Lhasa Railway Station.

Lhasa and Srinagar have some similarities. Both
are historical cities in beautiful valleys
surrounded by high Himalayan mountain ranges.
They are both on river banks, Lhasa on the Kyi
Chu River and Srinagar on the Jhelum River. But
there are differences. Lhasa, "the roof of the
world," is much higher at 12,000 feet, above the
tree line and the mountains around are mostly
barren. Srinagar, at 7,500 feet, is surrounded by
mountains in several shades of green, full of
pine, walnut and chinar trees. The incredibly
beautiful Dal Lake and gardens such as
Chashme-shahi and Nishat make Srinagar truly "Heaven on Earth."

Srinagar is a mid-sized Indian city: noisy,
chaotic and vibrant, with a unique personality
and a soul. Lhasa, on the other hand, has changed
dramatically under the Chinese administration.
The Grand Potala Palace, residence of Dalai
Lamas, where thousands of monks used to live, now
has only eight monks. The rest of it is used by
the Chinese army. Most of the old houses and
buildings in Lhasa are gone and it has become a
small, modern Chinese city with wide boulevards,
identical three to four story residential
buildings and rows of shops, all of the same
design. The sign boards outside shops in Srinagar
are in Urdu, English or Hindi depending upon the
target clientele. In Lhasa all sign boards have
bold Chinese characters by regulation, with small
Tibetan script underneath – a move as severe as
the attempted imposition of Marathi-only
signboards in Maharashtra. The population in
Lhasa is probably still majority Tibetan but
there has been a huge inflow of Han Chinese.
Lhasa has become a very orderly city but the character and soul have been lost.

Unfortunately both Srinagar and Lhasa have heavy
military presences. In Srinagar, it is to fight
the terrorists, and in Lhasa it is a display of force.

The incredibly beautiful Dal Lake and gardens
such as Chashme-shahi and Nishat make Srinagar truly "Heaven on Earth."

Srinagar Station, which opened last year, is a
lovely, small station with typical Kashmiri
design, in which beautifully carved walnut wood
is used extensively. It is on the new 100
kilometer train line in Kashmir Valley between
Baramullah and Qazigund. Train travel is very
popular among the local population as it is very
convenient and inexpensive. The toughest job is
held by the ticket inspectors, who have to argue
with the passengers, some of them traveling by a
train for the first time in their life, as to why
they must buy a ticket. Srinagar Station has
provision for "Retiring Rooms" presumably for the
use of travelers from the plains when the train
line gets connected to Jammu. The railway line
has been extended from Jammu to Uddhampur, a
50-km stretch which took many years and the
Jammu-Srinagar rail link project is more than seven years late.

Lhasa Railway Station is very impressive, a very
large building: much, much bigger than Srinagar's
station. The edifice is designed like Potala
Palace and uses the same distinct white and red
colors. It is the terminal station of the
Qinghai-Lhasa railway line completed in 2006,
ahead of schedule. The project cost $4 billion
and involved the laying of 12,000 km of new track
and 30 kms of tunnels, built by 11,000 migrant
workers. Much of the track is in the Tibetan
Plateau at an average height of 13,000 feet above
sea level, peaking at 16,500 feet. It is not only
a remarkable engineering achievement but a clear
statement of the Chinese government's
determination to accelerate the integration of
Tibet with mainland China. Furthermore, China has
already announced plans to extend rail connection
to Kathmandu and build a rail link to Myanmar.

The contrast between Srinagar and Lhasa stations
also highlights the differences between the pace
of economic growth and the growth of liberty and
freedom between China and India. To use a railway
metaphor, while the development of Indian economy
has accelerated significantly in recent years
from a passenger train to a Rajdhani train, the
Chinese economy is roaring ahead like a superfast
TGV or Shinkansen towards the G2 Station.
Starting at similar levels, China's per capita
GDP is almost three times that of India and the
pace of its economic development is much faster.
At the same time, the divergence in liberty and
freedom between the two countries is becoming more glaring.

India and China can learn a lot from each other
for their mutual benefit. India can learn from
China about how to have an effective and
efficient administration, the development of a
world-class infrastructure in power, roads,
ports, airports, etc. and how to build a low
cost, efficient manufacturing base. China can
learn from India about promoting the growth of
entrepreneurship in the services sector and about
a robust financial system including microfinance.
India can see the benefits of a more disciplined
society and better work ethics. China can examine
how to migrate to a society with greater individual freedom and democracy.

In the sixth century AD, a Chinese Buddhist monk,
Xuanzang, spent 15 years in India and reported on
India's society, culture, economy and Buddhist
religion in his famous book "Record of the
Western Regions." The Chinese Emperor Tarzang, of
the Tang Dynasty, was influenced greatly by this
knowledge and it accelerated China's growth at
that time. It would be great if modern day
Xuanzangs travel to the two countries and learn
from what is best in India and in China for the betterment of both countries.

* Arun Duggal, former chief executive of Bank of
America in India, is chairman of Shriram Capital
and has travelled extensively in China. He is based in New Delhi
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