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Prospects of Cross Line of Control (LoC) Travel and Trade

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  • January 31, 2014
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chair: Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Kapil Kak
    External Discussants: Professor Riyaz Punjabi and Professor K Warikoo
    Internal Discussants: Dr Smruti S Pattanaik and Col (Retd)Vivek Chadha

    Dr Priyanka Singh, in her presentation, analysed the prospects of travel and trade across the LoC, which according to her, were of strategic significance for India. She applauded the efforts made by the respective governments to soften their stand on LoC and discussed the way in which the LoC links were activated by the two governments in the aftermath of the ceasefire of 2003 transcending constitutional barriers in both the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and the so called ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’ (AJK) under Pakistani occupation.

    She argued that people-to-people contact, promoting economic interdependence and making borders irrelevant were imperative for the success of cross-LoC linkage. The presentation also contained informed about the operation of bus service on two routes, Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalkote, which were loosely modelled after Delhi-Lahore bus service. It was observed that sustaining lines of trade across the LoC was a significant step forward to soften the LoC, an important CBM between India and Pakistan.

    She highlighted the key recommendations of the Working Groups, which were constituted to recommend measures for softening the LoC for transit and dwelt on the composition of cross LoC trade—comprising mainly of handicraft, handloom and food items (agricultural and horticultural). Providing further details about cross-LoC trade Dr Singh said that it was not trade in the conventional sense of the term, and it was duty-free and barter based trade and operates on a limited basis through 1-1.5 ton capacity trucks.

    The scholar isolated events which catalysed the process of change which included the stakeholder’s meeting at Istanbul in November 2011, where Jammu & Kashmir Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry was formed. This was a milestone in institutionalizing trade between the two sides. She also discussed several bottlenecks which are inhibiting process of trade and travel, which included the never-ending security concerns, limited scope of trade, financial constraints, communication gap, logistical hurdles, and vulnerability to misuse.

    In spite of such hurdles, she argued that there was a growing demand for additional routes in the region which shows that such linkages are valued by people on both sides of the LoC. She also brought it to the notice of the audience that there was a feeling of being left-out in those regions of Jammu, Ladakh and Gilgit-Balitstan, where there are additional demands for cross-LoC linkages. People in these areas believe that too much focus is being laid on the Kashmir valley. The author quoted PM Manmohan Singh to prove this. The PM had in fact acknowledged recently that he was aware of the growing demand from the people in Kargil to have links restored with Gilgit and Baltistan, as a result of which the opening up of Kargil-Skardu is under consideration. Such links would not merely yield economic dividends, they would also address the issue of divided families in the state.

    The author noted that the record of cross-LoC travel so far was impressive and there was surprisingly no major incident of violence, apart from the one on the tourist facility center in Srinagar, a day before the bus service between Srinagar-Muzaffarabad started. She mentioned various incidences which affected cross-LoC trade between, including the 26/11, which occurred only a month after cross-LoC trade was inaugurated, the land controversy in Amarnath which flared communal tensions in the valley, beheading of an Indian soldier by Pakistani border guards and the allegations of drug-smuggling by Pakistani operators resulting in stalling of the process following 47 trucks carrying goods from PoK being withheld by Indian authorities.

    Dr Singh raised a pertinent point in her paper that the initiative has remained largely insulated from the larger complexities involving India-Pakistan relations. She held that it was natural to expect India-Pakistan relations would influence the Cross-LoC trade and travel. She mentioned various such instances when, the bus service was suspended, like suspension of the Delhi-Lahore bus for about two years in the aftermath of the militant attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.

    However, she found through her research that there was a tremendous enthusiasm amongst people on both sides about such linkage mainly because it gives them an opportunity to unite with the divided families across the LoC on either side, and partially due to the economic prospects it offers. The desire in the people of the region to see trade and travel flourish for a secure and better future for themselves was also highlighted.

    However, it was noted that while on the Indian side both the mainstream regional parties in J&K— National Conference (NC) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP)—expressed their faith in cross-LoC linkage the opinion was divided among the political elites of ‘AJK’ on how to approach the issue. Some of them feel emphasis on cross-LoC linkage would dilute the main issue of Kashmir. However, the business class in AJK is keen to expand trade-ties and has been demanding that cross LoC trade must be put on the agenda at the highest level of talks between India and Pakistan. The pressure from Gilgit Baltistan United Movement (GBUM) to open Kargil-Skardu route was also discussed.

    The popular demands were listed by the scholar well which were:— enhance transit capacity by increasing the number of vehicles, increase the trade basket, promote tourism to allow greater communication amongst people from both the sides, establish better lines of communication amongst the traders’ community, overall easing up access to the LoC, encourage greater participation of the people in the process, introduce integrated banking system and efficient sales policy, and above all carve out a well-conceived policy on security. At the same time due care must be taken, it was argued, to retain and preserve the quintessential Kashmiri character of the initiative.

    It was argued that cross LoC interactions could go a long way in managing perceptions not only within Kashmir, but possibly beyond it in both the countries. However, such initiatives are likely to stimulate bigger expectations, and the challenge lies in managing such expectations, which, if remain unaddressed for long, could potentially translate into cynicism, pessimism and anger, which is usually the case in conflict ridden areas.

    It was observed that at the India-Pakistan bilateral level, establishing cross-LoC linkage is probably one of the most tangible CBMs between the two. Thus, the fundamental question arises whether cross LoC exchange is a driver of peace? The scholar was of the opinion that in terms of larger long-term gains in pursuit of peace, both countries need to reflect upon these questions and think whether they are willing to make concessions on the larger political problems, most importantly on territorial issues. Ultimately the success of cross-Loc exchange during the last few years depended on whether the travel and trade has created an enabling environment, bridged the gap amongst Kashmiri people, encouraged collective economic consciousness, and more importantly reduced the level of frustrations and angst amongst Kashmiris during these years.

    The author closed by offering some suggestions to boost this initiative which included enhancing the scope of trans LoC interaction, maximising economic gains and incentives, opening the line for people other than those belonging to divided families, exploring additional diversified channels of exchange other than educational and medical needs, minimize technical problems, move on from the barter system as it is unsustainable in the long run and explore the option of transit trade by linking the route up to the Central Asian Republics.

    External Discussants:

    One of the external discussants, Prof Riyaz Punjabi applauded the author and stated that the paper did well to link cross-LoC trade and intra-J&K trade with Indo-Pak Relations. He apprised the gathering that the partition of 1947 did not take into account linguistic affinity, compulsions of geography and other cross-regional trade interests. He noted that before partition, Baramulla-Rawalpindi used to be an all-weather route open throughout the year and pointed out that cross-LoC trade would hold enormous potential if we connect the regions of Jammu and Ladakh to Kashmir.

    He stated that the Gilgit-Baltistan region had far been neglected by the Pakistani government and it was even referred to as ‘Northern Areas’ till 2005. He also recalled an incident when a group of journalists from across the LoC came to Jammu and had a gala time with the people out there, for which they had to face a very hostile time in Srinagar because the separatist Hurriyat Conference people were extremely displeased with their affinity with the people of Jammu.

    He also stated that the trade between the two parts of the region has enormous potential which has been hampered due the vested business interests of the political class who find it convenient and profitable to transfer the goods from a third destination, preferably Dubai. He accepted that there are several challenges one of which was the illegal drugs trade starting from Afghanistan through Pakistan and India to other markets beyond in South-east Asia. Radical elements will continue to push for this through India and Pakistan, taking advantage of the Cross-LoC and Wagah-Attari trade links. He urged that some mechanism must be found out to deal with such crucial issues in order to keep the cross LoC trade flourishing. In the end he emphasized that barter must be replaced by broader kind transaction system, may be through banks, to boost the process further.

    The other discussant, Prof K Warikoo, compared the cross-LoC situation with the situation in the Central Asian Republics. He cautioned the Indian authorities that it was very essential for them to first safeguard the borders before opening it up for trade. He stated that China has settled huge population of Han families, traders and officers in Kashgar area in order to fully sanitize the border before going for trade. The other border he quoted was the Tajik-Afghan border, where Taliban had changed the proportion of tribes in furtherance of its interests as it was a very porous border. Coming to the Indian context, he stated that till 2006, only 17,000 people crossed LoC, while over 10 million people go to Vaishno Devi and over 20 lakh to Amarnath shrine every year. While the Kashmiris are quite vocal about the need for cross-LoC linkage, they have not utilized this bus service to the extent they were expected to. He stated that it is only the Pahari speaking people from Poonch who have utilized the bus service as they have been the worst sufferers of the partition. He recalled his experience where people of Poonch showed their lands adjoining the border, on the other side, while they were confined to our side of the border. Their issues have never been addressed, not even in the Shimla Agreement. He also urged the international community to change its perception of looking at Kashmir as an underbelly of Central Asia and give it its due importance.

    Internal Discussants

    Dr. Smrutti Pattanaik stated that many people in the valley do not want to take the LoC route as the passport/identification verification process itself takes about 6 months to complete. She also stated that despite lot of clamour about the Kargil-Skardu route, the reservations are more with India than Pakistan, as majority of people in Kargil are Shia, whose pain and agony are often overlooked by the Sunni majority dominating the politics in Kashmir. She asked the author to put the present topic in a larger context and clarify whether she is looking at the cross-LoC trade only from the Kashmiri perspective or larger Indo-Pak perspective. She also asked the author to mention whether cross-LoC trade is crucial enough to feature in India’s larger foreign policy domain. The Chairperson, Kapil Kak noted that we all must have a grand vision for trade and commerce between Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China.

    Col Vivek Chaddha asked the author to be clear about the questions raised in the paper, as to whether she was looking at the subject from Indian or Pakistani perspective, as the security concerns of the two countries were very different. He also urged the author to visit the place and interact with people to take their views into consideration which would be of great importance for this paper. He also asked the author to clarify few topics in the paper which might not be understood by a layman, like the term “Trade Facilitation Centres”. He also asked the author to include the suggestion of J&K CM Omar Abdullah’s in the paper, that simple telephonic conversations should be started along with trade and commerce.

    Prof Riyaz Punjabi noted additionally that whatever is produced in Kashmir has a huge market within the country, so we do not need to explore foreign markets for the products of Kashmir. He further stated that it is a cause of concern that very few people from across the LoC visit the shrines in J&K, particularly Hazratbal, and Indian government must look into this issue.

    Report prepared by Abhimanyu Singh, Research Intern, IDSA.