As Narendra Modi's popularity quotient with India's business community — as well as several countries abroad — zooms upwards and India Inc's well-heeled representatives vie to commend Gujarat's chief minister, a section of less prosperous Indians in Jammu & Kashmir are pleading that the minuscule trade they conduct across the Line of Control (LoC)should not become a casualty to the rising tension with Pakistan.
On Thursday, the Pakistani authorities shut the gates at Chakan-da-Bagh in the Poonch-Rawlakote sector in the Jammu region, for the first time since barter trade was allowed in 2008, as a result of the killings and mutilation of soldiers by armies on both sides. However, the LoC remains open to trade in the Uri sector, across the Salamabad-Chakoti crossing on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad route. Trade on the latter route, worth Rs 19 crore (Rs 11 crore imported and Rs 8 crore exported) took place last week.
Let's take a look at the figures since they help telling the story. The total barter trade since 2008-9 across the Uri and Poonch sectors in J&K has been Rs 1,439 crore. The number of people who travelled across the Jammu, Uri and Teetwal sectors from the Pakistan side into Indian-controlled Kashmir so far is 11,494, while 7,288 Indian citizens used the bus and trade routes to cross into the Pakistan side.
Both trade and travel figures between the two Kashmirs are abysmally low, especially compared to the fact that Indians for the last two years have been the world's top travellers — with Gujaratis occupying the top spot.
But before we declare the confidence-building measures declared by both countries for their respective Kashmirs a failure, look at the details. Firstly, trade across the LoC is limited to barter trade. Second, only 21 items, among these apples and other fresh and dry fruit and vegetables, are allowed to be traded. Third, all these items must be grown inside Kashmir. Fourth, only Kashmiris can travel across the LoC in these special buses. Fifth, no banking facilities exist and trade cannot be denominated in dollars, for fear that this will alter the political character of the exercise; banks continue to talk about opening trade facilitation accounts, but have done nothing so far. Sixth, traders cannot talk to each other on the phone because cross-LoC phone services are shut, and therefore cannot identify their trading partners.
Despite the incredibly primitive character of this Stone Age barter trade, a group of traders and civil society leaders on the Poonch sector have a few days ago issued an appeal to the governments of India and Pakistan not to shut down the trade at the Chakan-da-Bagh crossing.
When the bus and trade services were opened, say these traders and civil society leaders, they provided opportunities for divided families to meet each other after decades. “Thus an atmosphere of peace and hope was created...and people residing along the LoC started their journey to progress and prosperity.”
With the recent escalation in tension, the traders say, their lives as well as their businesses are in jeopardy. “We urge that all efforts be made to defuse the tension on the LoC and restore trade ventures and weekly bus service from Ponch-Rawalakote, so that we, the people of the border areas, can live in our houses and localities with a sense of peace and security,” said Mohd Farooq, the head of the Poonch Jamia Masjid; Iftikhar Ahmed Bazmi, secretary of the Poonch Bar Association; Inder Raj Sharma, president Baparmanda Poonch and S Karishan Singh, secretary, cross-LoC Traders Association of Poonch, among others.
Kashmiris on both sides are now looking at the commerce secretaries of India and Pakistan who will hold talks in Agra and Delhi later this month, hoping they will expand the character of the cross-LoC trade, not diminish it.
As for India Inc, whose support of Modi's regime is based on the security and predictability he provides for their businesses, the question arises if chambers of commerce and individual business people could leverage their enormous influence with the government to also push trade between the two Kashmirs. Compared to the profits in Gujarat, the numbers in Kashmir are minuscule. India Inc's attention to this part of the country could make all the difference.