On March 8, cross-LoC duty-free barter trade was stopped after the army told civilian authorities that the Kaman Setu bridge linking Salamabad area of Uri with Chokoti region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir needed “immediate repairs to prevent further deterioration”. According to a note sent to the Baramulla deputy commissioner, army engineers felt the need after carrying out an inspection of the bridge earlier that day. “The repairs would require minimum 15 days. In view of this, the trade services (should) be suspended accordingly,” the note reads. Cross-LoC traders say 35 trucks had been loaded and 1,400 were in transit when the trade was stopped. Trade continued, however, through Chakan-da-bagh on the Poonch-Rawalakote route. While 341 traders use the Chakan-da-bagh route, 241 depend on the Salamabad one.
Renovation work was on when the Union home ministry called a meeting in Delhi on April 12, seeking details about the installation of full-body scanners, whose contract had been awarded to Punj Lloyd last year. The Indian Space Research Organisation has already approved the ionic radiation part of it. According to the state industries department officials, Punj Lloyd would complete its work in August.
Then, on April 18, the ministry issued an order suspending the trade, citing allegations that cross-LoC routes in Jammu and Kashmir are being misused by Pakistan-based elements for “illegal inflow” of weapons, narcotics and money. “We never imagined the trade would be stopped,” says LoC traders union coordinator Javid Ahmad Makroo. “As our goods are in transit, prolonged closure would finish us economically.” The traders have been meeting regularly at Parimpora Mandi in Srinagar since the closure of the trade.
When cross-LoC trade was started on October 21, 2008, many separatist political organisations did not see it as just trade, but a political move by Delhi and Islamabad to push such “confidence-building measures” (CBMs) as the solution of the Kashmir issue. Some in the Pakistani establishment also shared this view. “Many thought the road is a CBM, but I always say the road is a destination and the only possibility given the sovereignty issue of two countries,” says former minister and PDP leader Naeem Akhtar, who argues that trade would break the “steel wall” of the LoC and lead to a unification of sorts of J&K without disturbing the sovereignty of India and Pakistan.
According to a political analyst, Pakistan would be happy if the trade is stopped. Many cross-LoC traders also believe that the neighbouring country has been dragging its feet on the matter. Only traders from J&K are allowed, and, until recently, only to trade in goods produced in J&K or PoK. Currently, 21 items of trade are permitted.
The trade had been suspended in February 2015 after the J&K Police arrested a driver from PoK, alleging that he was carrying 305 packets of ‘brown sugar’ (crude heroin) weighing 12 kg in his truck. But such suspensions have been temporary hiccups in the trade conducted four days a week on the two routes between 9 am and 4 pm. “Huge investment has been made in the infrastructure development, so we can’t imagine the trade will stop,” says Cross-LoC Traders Association president Hilal Ahmad Turki. Trade Facilitation Centres (TFC) have been set up 5 km down the road from the LoC on both sides, and the trucks are driven till there to unload the goods and return. The goods are then reloaded on local trucks for the onward journey.
Taking out his diary and citing several examples of crimes on the Wagah border, Turki says, “But trade was never stopped on that route.” He had just graduated in 2008 when he got involved in the trade and began to think of himself as an “ambassador” of CBMs. “Now I feel isolated in society. My family wants me to do something else and I will,” Turki says. Frequent allegations by the police and security agencies that hawala transactions are being carried out through the trade are behind his growing disinclination. And following raids by the National Investigation Agency in 2017 probing “terror-funding”, many traders in the Valley have stopped trusting the cross-LoC traders. “We are being looked down upon in society and sometimes accused of playing with the sentiments of people,” says a young trader.
The traders want the government to chalk out some guidelines for the trade. “We want everything to be vetted by the state and the central governments,” says Turki. “Traders should be given three months to make their trade zero-balance. It should also be digitalised, and traders in Delhi, Srinagar and Muzaffarabad should see who is trading with whom and what. After every 15 days, the currency value of both countries should be fixed vis-à-vis the goods traded.” Both Turki and Makroo concede that traders from Lahore and Amritsar are using the cross-LoC route through their agents among Kashmiri traders. “The government knows this. Let it take action,” says Makroo.
According to senior police officers who have probed the trade, there are five FIRs related to the trade, but no terror-funding links have been established. But they admit that lack of an appropriate mechanism is marring the whole trade. Four years ago, a large quantity of coconut powder was exported from here and the traders couldn’t explain why it is in such demand across the LoC. Last year, a large number of trucks carrying chilli seeds were sent across, surprising the police. The traders described the commodity as chilli flakes, and the police suspected at one point that it might be used in Afghanistan for making “chilli bombs”. Then the trade facilitation officer at Muzaffarabad wrote to his counterpart in Uri, asking him to stop the export of chilli flakes as it was difficult to handle at the TFC. But the export continues.
Police officers say closure of the trade affects only around 20 families in J&K and their relatives across the LoC, while others have become agents of powerful traders from Lahore and Amritsar. They also claim that goods procured from other parts of the country are being traded through the LoC routes. Former J&K finance minister Haseeb Drabu describes cross-LoC trade as a political initiative without a business model. The traders have been calling for a business model for long, but the governments in Delhi and Islamabad have shown little interest so far. Meanwhile, repair work on the bridge has been completed and the traders await resumption of the trade.
The Barter’s Size Matters
- 24,967 trucks
- 30,481 consignments
- Rs 1,01,166 lakh cr approximate value
- 13,772 trucks
- 21,928 consignments
- Rs 1,61,604 lakh cr approximate value
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar