In October 2008 and against all odds the Cross-LoC trade, the most successful Confidence Building Measures (CBM), between India and Pakistan commenced. The trade followed the 2008 agitations over controversial land row which culminated in the fall of the then PDP-Congress government. Even though the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan were already in talks to start intra-Kashmir trade and truck service, but it was the summer agitation when Hurriyat leaders gave the call of “Muzaffarabad Chalo” to end the economic blockade imposed by the Jammu trader’s body upon Kashmir that cross LoC trade became a reality.
A large section of people initially believed it to be a political maneuver to cool tempers in the state, in Kashmir particularly. However, with its growth and identification of new bottlenecks in the trade, it became a self-propelling initiative promising economic benefits to the people on both sides of LoC besides goodwill.
One of the interesting things about cross LoC trade is its surviving some of the major flare-ups in the state. By now it has seen 2010 and 2016 unrests and is past the eruptive atmosphere of Kashmir. In 2016 summer when Hizb commander Burhan Wani was killed, situation in Kashmir went out of control and the trade also had to bear the brunt. It hasn’t received the kind of attention in the last four to five years as it used to when it commenced. Despite that many people see it as the remnant of peace symbol, an agreement that both India and Pakistan had willingly entered.
After completing 10 years with no let off in Kashmir issue and in addition to the escalation of border tension between India and Pakistan that has resulted in military and civilian casualties on both sides, the trade remains to be the only hope of peaceful relations between India and Pakistan.
In a report released by Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals (BRIEF) some two years ago, it was revealed that in previous eight years the cumulative trade across the LoC was worth 699 million dollars (approx). According to the official statistics, from October 21, 2008 to February 28, 2015 – 46,274 trucks exchanged goods at Uri-Muzzafarabad route and 20,668 trucks at the Poonch-Rawalakot route.
India and Pakistan mutually agreed to start trade across the LoC on October 21, 2008. This has been by far the most celebrated and successful CBM between India and Pakistan. The trade is carried out according to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) signed between India and Pakistan. The trade is allowed through the Uri-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalkot routes on a mutually agreed list of items. The nature of the trade is barter and it takes place only four days a week.
Like the previous NC-Congress government, the PDP-BJP government which followed promised to boost the trade and remove known obstacles for its smooth conduct. One of the proponents of the booming trade was former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. On January 24, 2018 PDP-led government announced the proposal of opening seven more trade routes and two trade points. The new routes proposed by the government were Jammu-Sialkot, Chhamb-Jourian to Mirpur, Gurez-Astoor-Gilgit, Jhangar (Nowshera)-Mirpur and Kotli, Turtuk-Khapulu, Kargil- Skardu and Titwal-Chilhan (Across Neelam Valley).
There is no denying the fact that over the years the trade has been reduced to mere ‘symbolic gesture’ due to the politics of acrimony between the two countries. There are still many challenges that hinder the realization of cross-LoC trade of its full potential.
Lack of truck scanners, road infrastructure, lack of banking facility and most importantly an absence of clarity on rules with respect to the standard operating procedure were flagged as issues hindering the trade. Also the disparity in registered traders on both sides of the LoC has caused the trade to slump.
According to a report, in 2015-16 the number of active traders was approximately 18 percent of the number of registered traders. However, despite all the repercussions, traders across the LoC are resolute in continuing trade and preserve the bonhomie developed by them over the years.
Many stakeholders, including traders, journalists, academicians and policy makers, have made personal investments to ensure the sustainability of cross-LoC trade. This has resulted in many benefits for the local economy.
Employing barter trade to promote peace in a conflict-ridden region is not unique to the Kashmir context. Many countries like Kenya, Myanmar and China use barter trade as a peace-building tool to support well-being and self-sufficiency of people affected by conflict.
For instance, in Kenya the barter system of trade was started to assist the rural and tribal people in developing and manufacturing self-help products so that their support for non-state actors is lowered.
While Kashmir is going through tough times, both in terms of collapse of the state government as well as resentment against the “muscular policies” of the central government, the trade is the only ray of hope to see improvement in relations between India and Pakistan. The belligerence has caused the state as well as the two countries to pay heavy price.