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Trans-Kashmir-trade a penniless business

A hundred days after India and Pakistan opened trade links across the Line of Control in Kashmir, the process has yet to move beyond symbolism. Lack of payment modalities, travel and communication barriers are plaguing the trade, amid Indo-Pak tension that threatens the process itself.Shahnawaz Khan reports.

Srinagar,January 29, 2009:

Inside of a Hospital Ambulance in Kashmir
A truck crosses Aman Setu or the Peace Bridge on the Lie of Control in Kahsmir on October 21, 2008.
Last year when trucks rolled across the Kashmir's Line of Control (LoC), the jubilation of the moment was enough to drown any lacuna, howsoever big. A hundred days later, the lacunae are slowly overwhelming the jubilation.

On October 21, 2008, a dozen small trucks from each side of Kashmir crossed the line for the first time in 61 years, marking the beginning of cross-LoC-trade.

The Line of Control, formerly called the ceasefire line, divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan since 1947, when the two countries fought first war for the control of the region just weeks after attaining their independence from Britain.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarbad Road, a tributary of historic Silk Route and the traditional link of Kashmir valley to Central Asia and rest of the world, is closed since.

It is partly open now, for limited trade - twice a week.

"Trade!" exclaims Shakeel Qalandar, President of the Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir, "What can you trade in a one-ton carrier," he says referring to one of the many problems hampering the cross-LoC-trade.

The iron bridge on the LoC is good enough for small one-ton trucks only, so heavy vehicles are not allowed.

"Unfortunately when this trade was started, all the basic modalities for this trade were absent. The authorities were keen to start trading on October 21. They assured us to finalise all the requisite modalities, soon. It is unfortunate that the modalities have not been finalised and the whole issue has turned symbolic," says Qalandar.

There is no payment system for traders, as India and Pakistan have yet to sort out the modalities for payments and currency exchange.

The huge travel and communication barriers in the region add to the hurdles.

"We cannot pick a phone and make a call (to Pakistan administered Kashmir). They can. As you can understand it is not possible to trade without phone facility. We have to rely on emails, which again is a slipshod thing," says Mubeen Shah, President, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries.

India does not allow any phone calls from Indian administered Kashmir to Pakistan or Pakistan administered Kashmir. Calls can however be made from the Pakistani side to Indian administered Kashmir.

Shah says the government had promised to lift the telecommunication barrier besides meeting other demands of traders, like multiple entry permits for traders, or a payment system.

"We had suggested that both India and Pakistani currency should be used, with reference to US dollar for fixing of exchange rates. We had also suggested that Jammu and Kashmir Bank should open a branch in Pakistan administered Kashmir, while their AJK Bank should open branches here for facilitating transactions" says Shah.

However, so far there has been no progress on the modalities, and with India Pakistan relations strained after the Mumbai terror attack, no progress is in sight either.

Even the Chief Minister of Indian administered Kashmir Omar Abdullah finds the trade in its current form "useless".

"It has been given to us in the name of trade, but it is a barter system. What use is the trade, if you cannot send and receive money. People (traders on both sides of LoC) should be able to talk to each other too. The process needs to be streamlined" Omar said during a press conference in Srinagar adding, "However, in the aftermath of

Mumbai attacks, India Pakistan relations have soured, that needs to be addressed first. I am thankful that no decisions have been reversed.

Even if we haven't moved two steps forward, we haven't gone backwards either."

Despite all its problems the "trade" is going on, with a handful of traders exchanging goods twice a week. Much of it has to do with the spirit of traders, like Ghulam Rasool Bhat, in keeping the trade alive.

Bhat is the president of Baramulla Fruit Growers Association. In collaboration with fruit growers association across Kashmir, he was among the first traders to arrange and send the first consignments across the LoC.

"We have given sacrifices for the opening of this route. We will never let this trade be closed. This is our traditional road, the road our forefathers used. If this road is closed, we will give sacrifices again," says Bhat.

The spirit does not stop Bhat from complaining about the problems in the trade.

"We have no idea of what happened to the fruit we sent across. Whether that was sold or at what rates? We have no idea of who we are sending the goods to," says Bhat.

"We had requested the government to allow us to travel across, at least allow a traders delegation one visit across to asses the market demand there. We do not have any telecommunication facilities either."

Echoing Bhat's concerns and commitments, Mubeen Shah says, "We are a patient nation. We have waited 61 years for the opening of this road. We can wait a bit more for the modalities."

Although India and Pakistan had talked long about the opening of trade links in Kashmir, it was a recent crisis in Indian administered Kashmir that had pushed the process ahead.

Indian police shot dead at least seven people, including a separatist leader, when thousands of people were heading to Line of Control during a 'Muzaffarabad March' call by traders and separatists to press for the opening of the road, in wake of an economic blockade of Kashmir Valley by rightwing Hindu activists of Jammu province.

Many more were killed in subsequent protests.

In what was a turbulent year for Indian administered Kashmir a controversial land transfer by government to Hindu cave shrine Amarnath, stirred huge pro-freedom demonstrations in Muslim dominated Kashmir valley, and counter protests in Hindu dominated districts of Jammu province.

Hindu activists in Jammu enforced an economic blockade by attacking supply trucks on Jammu-Srinagar Highway, the only operational road link to Kashmir Valley, leading to demands for the opening of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road.



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