May 2006 News

Kashmiris Hail Cross-LoC Trade

4 May 2006
The News International

Srinagar: Kashmiris welcomed on Thursday an agreement between India and Pakistan to allow trade along a highway linking the two sides of their divided Himalayan territory, hoping it would usher in a new era of prosperity in the region. After two days of talks, India and Pakistan agreed on Wednesday to start a truck service across the Line of Control. The trade route is scheduled to open by mid-July. 'It is a welcome development. Our handicrafts, carpets, shawls and fruits are internationally acclaimed. The decision will hugely benefit these businesses,' said AM Mir, general secretary of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry.The highway was opened to travellers in April 2005, but trade was not allowed. The new agreement will also help recover held Kashmir's economy. Kashmiri traders will be able to send their famed carpets, embroidered shawls, spices, walnut furniture and apples to Azad Kashmir and Pakistan, officials said. 'After a painful and prolonged period of turmoil, a new era of economy and trade has started,' Ghulam Nabi Azad, chief minister of held Kashmir, said on Thursday. But the biggest beneficiary of the trade agreement will be Kashmir's apple industry, the mainstay of held Kashmir's economy. The region produces about 1.2 million metric tonnes of apples a year, bringing in India Rs 20 billion ($455 million) a year and employing nearly 600,000 people. Currently, Kashmir apples have to be shipped by trucks to other Indian cities before being exported to other countries, including Pakistan. The process takes weeks and growers say it effectively keeps them out of potentially lucrative markets, such as the Middle East and Europe. 'The transportation time to international markets will be reduced drastically - from several weeks to a few days,' Mir said. People expressed a mixture of hope and caution over announcement that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference agreed on Wednesday to establish a system to discuss solutions to the Kashmir dispute. 'It is a positive development,' said Noor Ahmad Baba, head of Kashmir University's political science department. 'But much would depend on how far the Hurriyat is able to retain the confidence of Kashmiris,' he said. Much would also depend on how far Pakistan is willing to back Hurriyat in the quest to settle the dispute, analysts said. Some ordinary Kashmiris echoed their caution. 'Unfortunately, previous talks failed to produce a breakthrough. But I am now hopeful and pray that all parties concerned will work sincerely and find a solution so that peace returns,' said 28-year-old Syed Sajjad in held Srinagar. 'I believe the slow and steady win the race.' A lasting settlement will also need the support of militant groups, who are opposed to any compromise with the Indian government. But their opposition could be overcome only if the militants take part in the dialogue, some Kashmiris said. 'There will be no outcome as long as the militants are not involved in the talks,' said Mohammad Amin, a Srinagar businessman. A brother of Amin's wife was a senior member of Hizbul Mujahideen and killed by soldiers in a gun-battle two years ago. 'I am sure the militants will not let the blood of thousands of martyrs go waste,' he said.


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