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Suspension of LoC trade was long in the offing, but govt must find ways to ease stressed J&K economy

By virtue of having commanded the Uri Brigade at the Line of Control and at the Baramula-based Dagger Division in Jammu and Kashmir during most challenging times, I was witness to and formed a part of the execution of two major decisions that were designed for long term strategic effect in the highly charged Jammu and Kashmir situation.

The first decision was in 2005 with the opening of the Srinagar-Uri-Muzaffarabad road on 7 April, 2005 to allow divided families of Kashmir and others to have mutual exchanges of visits with their relatives without resort to the expensive air route or via Wagah border. It was a major confidence-building measure (CBM) by India and Pakistan in the light of the peace process set up by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and president Pervez Musharraf, which was continued by Vajpayee's successor Manmohan Singh.

After Uri's famous Kaman Post the second transit point for the cross LoC bus service was opened at Chakkan-da-Bagh (CDB) in Poonch. The next major decision was in 2008; the opening of two trade routes at both transit points of the bus service, to facilitate trance LoC trade in local produce between Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir.

Eleven years later, on 18 April 2019, the Government of India decided to suspend the trans-LoC trade with immediate effect on grounds of its severe misuse. The background to the earlier decision on trade and the developments in the intervening period between 2008 and 2019 will explain why the Government of India took this decision.

 Suspension of LoC trade was long in the offing, but govt must find ways to ease stressed J&K economy

File image of the first truck in 2008 carrying goods from PoK enters India at Kaman Bridge. AFP

In 2008, the four-year-long peace process, involving various confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan appeared tapering off with the separatists perceiving the ground slipping under their feet. A chain of contrived events led to the Amarnath Shrine Board agitation in Kashmir. The immediate fallout was the commencement of a similar agitation in Jammu to blockade movement of goods to Kashmir. The resultant effect was a demand by traders of Kashmir for an opportunity to set up trade with Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir as an alternative to trade with Jammu which had blocked them and held them to ransom for some time.

On 11 August 2008 a massive march, with almost a lakh of people from Sopore to Uri, was attempted to forcibly press for trans-LoC trade by trying to cross the LoC. Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz was mysteriously killed during the march. It led to a period of intense agitation, the precedent to the stone throwing agitations which haven’t stopped till today. However, the government accepted a fledgeling system of cross-LoC trade through two identified transit points with the proviso that the goods exchanged would be only identified ones and those produced locally. Since no banking facility or even communication facility was set up, everything commenced on an ad hoc basis with barter being the system rather than payment through banks.

Unlike Chakkan-da-Bagh, due to lack of space, the Kaman transit point had to be shifted to a location 18 kilometres inside at Salamabad, close to Uri. That meant initially once and later four times a week as many as hundred Pakistani trucks with Pakistani drivers entered 18 kilometers to unload their goods and many times could not exit the same day. How many of these drivers were agents of the ISI or simply Pakistani soldiers or officers in disguise could never be ascertained. The promised banking facility was never provided since after the 26/11 Mumbai attack the peace process and CBMs came to an end. The trans-LoC trade continued as a barter trade, a travesty in the 21st Century. However, expansion from one to four days a week took place on demand of traders of both sides.

The effect of drift without any clear understanding of the threats posed by the trade did compromise security. If a banking system had been set up with verifiable bank records it would have afforded at least a semblance of control. In the absence of that, the barter allowed the Indian side to send fewer goods and pay the dues meant for the PoK counterpart, to the Separatists; the PoK trader could be compensated by agencies of Pakistan.

The effect of drift without any clear understanding of the threats posed by the trade did compromise security. AFP

The effect of drift without any clear understanding of the threats posed by the trade did compromise security. AFP

A system of tampering with invoices was not difficult to set up. With such a large volume of trucks permitted it was a matter of time before contraband found its way into the system. Pakistani mobile sim cards could be smuggled by the drivers at will and were in much demand on the Indian side in a period before Whatsapp existed. Trans LoC mobile communication on Pakistani sim cards continues to pose a threat in terms of coordination of terror-related activities.

The large volume of truck movement and the need for a hasty return to the other side obviated major checks for contraband such as narcotics or even explosive material. On one or two occasions the trade remained suspended when weapons were apprehended from within hiding places inside the trucks. Although the system was reviewed several times it appeared that the real threats never really caught attention. For many months even coconuts from Kerala were the export from India when it clearly prohibited trade in any goods other than local produce.

The Indian Army was never comfortable with a large number of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir trucks permitted to enter and stay at Salamabad at night. It prevented proper checks and afforded enough scope for mischief. However, it was never understood as to why India was facilitating activities against its own security. Delhi knew what was happening but Srinagar appeared to have the last say. All Delhi needed to do was to streamline the system through banking and formal communication infrastructure with mandatory records. Even the simple long demanded full body scanner for large trucks to facilitate a peep into fully loaded vehicles without unloading was never provided. The purchase of that equipment has remained in process for the better part of twenty years without fructification. It seems no one can offer an explanation on why this is so.

Thus, with the suspension of most favoured nation status for Pakistan by India after the Pulwama incident the zero duty proviso no longer remains in vogue. India has decided to do away with the trans-LoC trade on the premise of the security threats it poses. The truth of it is that both India and Pakistan remained reluctant players in the entire exercise of trade, refusing traders what was due to them in terms of banking, interaction and communication facilities. Instead of becoming a confidence-building exercise it became one of increasing suspicion. The involvement of clandestine networks supported by Separatists and terrorists was obvious but given the NIA’s competence, this could be made foolproof if a commitment was undertaken and some degree of formalisation of procedures beyond the barter system was instituted.

In the absence of any major verifiable systems, the most prudent decision, for now, is to temporarily suspend the trade. However, it is still a retrograde step in Indo Pak relations when each CBM is rolled back. Given the prevailing environment, especially after the botched Banihal attempt at a second car bomb attack in less than two months, the authorities have reason to perceive that all facilitators for terror activity in Kashmir which have insufficient scope for surveillance be placed under temporary suspension. The social impact in terms of loss of jobs among common people and revenue by traders will no doubt be very negative; the value of the trade over three years being approximately Rs 3,433 crore. In comparison to the very unpopular decision regarding closure of the National Highway to the public on two days of the week, this decision can yet be justified. However, with a difficult job market, the administration could do well to work overtime to ameliorate the social effects of the decision.

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Updated Date: Apr 20, 2019 09:28:07 IST