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#4295, 6 February 2014
 

J&K

LoC Trade Under Fire
Shujaat Bukhari
Editor, Rising Kashmir
 

Notwithstanding many inherent bottlenecks, the cross Line of Control (LoC) trade between two parts of erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had emerged as a significant achievement of the peace process that started with a ceasefire along the LoC in 2003. Besides the ambitious resumption of travel on once famous Jhelum Valley road between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad and subsequently in Jammu’s Poonch-Rawlakot sector, the LoC trade kick-started in October 2008 soon after the Amarnath agitation hit the two regions of Kashmir and Jammu in a bitterly fought “communal” fight over the land allotted to Amarnath Shrine Board by the state government.

On the face of it, the land row has nothing to do with the trade between two sides. But the trade was already on the wish list of both India and Pakistan as a cementing measure to bring the two sides closer as part of confidence building. However, when the traders in Jammu put an “economic blockade” in place to “avenge” the opposition of Kashmiris to allotment of land, the clamour for opening the traditional Muzaffarabad route grew louder.

Delhi and Islamabad quickly moved to make it a reality, not only to douse the fires of land row but also to complete the process of CBMs. But it came at a huge cost. By that time 60 people had died in firing by police including senior separatist leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz who led the Muzaffarabad Chalo march on August 11, 2008. The march had been supported by all separatists across the board and even hard-liners such as Syed Ali Geelani had thrown his weight behind it.

Despite many ups and downs, the trade moved on. Lack of proper infrastructure and facilities such as banking proved to be a stumbling block in its progress, but the trade survived. Even amid heightened hostilities between the two countries, the traders who had developed huge stakes in this trade tried to push it in this hostile environment. But the biggest blow that came to the trade was in the third week of January when a truck coming from Muzaffarabad was found to be carrying Brown Sugar worth whopping Rs 114 crores in the Indian market. The driver of the truck was arrested and it led to detention of drivers of many trucks on both sides. The Srinagar-Muzaffarbad bus service was also suspended leaving many people stranded on either side of LoC. Even though the bus service resumed on Monday, the trade standoff prevails.

This was not for the first time that any contraband item was found in a truck. But in the past the quantity was ignorable. This time, the cost of this 114-kilogram consignment in the International market is put at Rs 560 crores and police sources say that it was Sri Lanka bound consignment. The result is that the trade has suffered not only huge losses but a threat about its closure is also looming large since both sides are sticking to their ground.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation by Police, on the face of it the incident exposed the Pakistani government of laxity as far as the protection of this trade from smugglers and spoilers is concerned. There are many questions, which this lapse has thrown up. Where was its origin, where it was actually headed and what was the level of involvement of various officials as intruding the truck with such a heavy load of Brown Sugar is not possible without a well-knit connivance of officials.

Unfortunately, both the countries have failed to address this issue in the right perspective and the reaction has been nothing less than usual tit-for-tat exercise. First and foremost thing is that the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) has failed to address such a situation on mutual basis. This unseen situation is the result of indifference both the sides have shown towards this important CBM. While Pakistan has failed to take immediate action against its officials in setting a procedure and added to the hostilities, India has also not moved in any direction that would throw up a solution.

Putting the trade on halt is not the solution to such a crisis. India and Pakistan have been trading through Wagah on a larger scale. Contraband items have been seized on that route as well. But trade was never called off. Here the apprehensions of Kashmir traders are closer to vindication that India and Pakistan feel threatened with LoC trade and they are now more concerned about promoting “their trade”. That trade also needs to flourish as bringing both countries closer through economic ties will have a positive impact on Kashmir.

But unless India and Pakistan treat this trade in isolation and come forward with pragmatic procedures to see that it works, no forward movement is possible on other fronts. Kashmir is the bone of contention between the two and no economic tie will bear a positive fruit unless this issue is addressed with sincerity and seriousness.

One of the biggest benefits of this trade was that hundreds of Kashmiri youth who had crossed over to Pakistan Administered Kashmir from 1990 onwards and are stuck in Pakistan and PaK had found it as a route to dignified rehabilitation. If that only aspect is kept in mind, then it has made things easier for both countries in dealing with them. The trade is in the interest of people of Jammu and Kashmir on both sides, so it is incumbent upon Delhi and Islamabad to protect those interests. Today, those who see trade as a “diversionary tactics” to “real issue of Kashmir” had supported the ‘Muzaffarabad Chalo’ march, which claimed 60 lives in 2008. They must explain as to why they supported the march for opening the road for trade and now are against it. They owe an explanation to 60 families who lost their dear ones. Political slogans based on fancies must be stopped to end exploitation of the sentiment.

The best way for both countries is to order a joint probe with representatives of Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) from each part of LoC East and West to fix the responsibility and hand out stern punishment to those who are responsible for this crime. Delhi and Islamabad have joint responsibility to sustain this important CBM that has changed the lives of hundreds of people in last five years.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir

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