Pakistan's Mysterious Reluctance on LoC Trade

Md. Sadiq

16 September 2008

For the people of the Kashmir Valley locked as they are into an isolated region surrounded by high mountains, the opening of more trade and transit routes would be a welcome step. The Indian government has not tried to stop Kashmiri trade through Muzaffarabad with Pakistan. In fact, the Indian government has repeatedly been telling Pakistan to open a trading point at the LoC so that Kashmiris on both sides could trade as well as transit. The Pakistanis mysteriously have resisted such proposals.

For the people of the Kashmir Valley locked as they are into an isolated region surrounded by high mountains, the opening of more trade and transit routes would be a welcome step. The recent agitation in Jammu showed how vulnerable fruit growers in the Valley are. As the only lifeline of the Valley via the Banihal tunnel to Jammu was virtually besieged, fruit growers could only watch in dismay as their produce rotted. Several Kashmiri leaders also played an insidious role by preventing and scaring fruit growers from sending their produce through the convoys to other parts of the country. The separatists in particular, used the occasion to gain political mileage by telling the businessmen in Kashmir that they should trade with Pakistan through the closed Muzaffarabad route. By instilling fear into the businessmen and ensuring that they suffered business losses, the separatists succeeded in making their point as well as stirring up further discontent amongst businessmen. The strange fact however is that the Indian government has not tried to stop Kashmiri trade through Muzaffarabad with Pakistan. In fact, the Indian government has repeatedly been telling Pakistan to open a trading point at the LoC so that Kashmiris on both sides could trade as well as transit. The Pakistanis mysteriously have resisted such proposals without saying an outright 'no' to them. Clearly, the demand of separatist to resume trade via Muzaffarabad is not aimed at promoting of trade but making another political point.

The government of India, on the other hand, has been trying its best to begin LoC trade as soon as possible. It is learnt that Pranab Mukherjee had made a formal request to Pakistan for revival of the cross-LoC trade. Reports said India had submitted a list of 14 items for import including precious stones, namdas and embroidery works. Some Kashmiri traders want to be allowed to transit through Pakistan to sell their fruit in India through the Wagah border crossing. Pakistan does not wish to allow transit trade. Thus it is Pakistan which is proving to be a stumbling block to LoC trade which is exactly opposite of what the Hurriyat leadership is trying to make it out to be. Though the Separatists are supported by Pakistan, there has been no positive response from Islamabad to the positive gestures and initiatives by Indian govt for starting trade via Muzaffarabad Road. Ministers like Saifuddin Soz and others have already announced concrete measures for LoC trade but a response from across the border is still awaited. This is despite constant demands form various section of J&K state including political leaders like Mehbooba Mufti and secessionist groups, to facilitate trade of goods via the Muzaffarabad road.

The real problem appears to be one of market. According to an estimate, the purchasing power of people of POK and surrounding areas is low as compared to Indian side and this could translate into lower demand. The cities of Punjab are already full of fresh and dried fruits. Karachi is quite far away and there are apprehensions about the success of trade with that city. The Separatist leaders however claim that by trading their goods via Muzaffarabad road businessmen can earn more profits, which appears to be contrary to the reality. It remains to be seen whether the sale of the two main Kashmiri products apples and handicrafts to Pakistan will bring more profit than from the trade with the rest of India. Moreover, economic experts feel that profitable trade for J&K state is more feasible as well as desirable via traditional land route (Srinagar –Jammu highway) because of its well-set infrastructure and availability of markets. Also, according to Kashmir Observer "Pakistan had outright rejected 12 items, including fresh fruit, saffron and papier machie, from the list India had proposed for export from this side of the Line of Control. There, however, was no official confirmation from either side of the divide about the vital items being left out of the cross-LoC trade proposal."

But things could look up. For, India and Pakistan have decided to expedite the process of starting cross-Line of Control (LoC) trade. According to a report in the Daily Times, "Senior officials from both countries are holding a meeting here on September 22 to finalise modalities and items to be traded across the LoC. Both sides have expressed commitment to begin truck services along the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road early next month. An official spokesman said the India-Pakistan Joint Working Group on Cross-LoC CBMs would meet in Delhi to finalise modalities." Meanwhile, another report says that facilities for LoC trade are almost complete on the Indian side. According to one news item, quoting the chief secretary of J&K, "facilities for the Cross-LoC trade at Salamabad would be fully in place within the next three to four weeks and additional land was being acquired for the construction of a state-of-the-art Land Custom Station there." State Chief secretary S S Kapoor said a similar facility would be set up at Chakan da Bagh in Poonch for Cross-LoC trade through Poonch-Rawlakote road. A temporary Land Custom Station would be constructed to facilitate the trade across the LoC. India is trying to open LoC trade by Eid but it remains to be seen if Pakistan will allow this.

India and Pakistan are trying to normalise their relations for the betterment of the people of the region. It is very important therefore that peace return to Kashmir. However, it seems certain vested elements are in search of opportunities to spoil the atmosphere of fast growing Indo-Pak friendship and cooperation. Not surprisingly, some separatists leaders raised the slogan of “Muzaffarabad Chalo” during the Sri Amarnath Yatra land agitation. This was an emotive and not a real issue. Sadly, it is this kind of hypocrisy that is continuously preventing Kashmir to climb out of the morass of a sense of victimisation and violence.

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