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Resume India-Pakistan Trade, Bus Service, Border Villagers Demand After LoC Ceasefire

View of Uri town (Image: Ubeer Naqushbandi)

View of Uri town (Image: Ubeer Naqushbandi)

Residents in border villages say the two countries should take one more step towards ‘aman’ by resuming a cross-LoC bus service and trade activities.

LoC diary - Silent Guns Rising hopes Ayatullah Handoo, a resident of Uri town in Baramulla district, looks across the majestic Himalayas. His eyes can’t hide the longing to meet his relatives across the Line of Control (LoC). The septuagenarian recalls the moment he visited them at Shah-e-Inayat Mohalla in Muzaffarbad in 2006, thanks to a cross-LoC bus service.

The Karvan-e-Aman service, launched in 2005, was suspended in 2019, as tensions between India and Pakistan spiralled after New Delhi’s decision to abrogate Article 370, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

“Now that the two countries have agreed to a ceasefire, they should take another step forward and start the historic bus service that was touted as a major confidence-building measure,” Handoo says.

“I cannot forget how it was to see my relatives for the first time after years of separation in 2006. There were those who were born in that period…They all remained awake around me all night as if I were a cherished treasure,” he says.

It was for the first time that he, at 55, had gone to visit his relatives. “It is a big tragedy (the stopping of the bus service). I hope it starts again,” says Handoo.

He is not alone. Many villagers along LoC in Uri sub-division are separated from their families by what they call the “line of misfortune”: a mother and her son, a father and his daughter, a husband and his wife, and many more.

Their villages, nestled in the Pir Panjal Range, are a few kilometres — at times a few metres — away. Yet, that distance is hard to cover.

Mohammadin Khawaja Budoo, a resident of Garkote village, was suffering from cancer. He had a last wish: to meet his son, who stays in Muzaffarabad. His son crossed over to the other side when militant activities peaked in Kashmir in the 1990s. He settled there.

Budoo’s last wish did not come true. In 2008, at 75, he was lowered in his grave. Two years later, his wife, Raja Begum, died of the same disease. She, too, could not meet her son one last time. Emotions run high on both sides of the border when such unfortunate incidents happen.

Several families along the border were separated during the Partition in 1947. Also, in the tumultuous 1990s, many youngsters crossed over. While some returned and joined militancy, others stayed back. In fact, it was for these families that the Karvan-e-Aman service was launched. A journey required a travel permit instead of international passport and a clearance of intelligence agencies from both sides.

Trade comes to a halt

Mohammad Younis Awan’s eyes lit up after he heard about the news of ceasefire between India and Pakistan in the last week of February. The 50-year-old thinks it’s a step towards “aman (peace)”.

A labourer, his fortunes changed with that of many others like him after cross-LoC trade came to a grinding halt in 2019 after about 11 years in the wake of tensions over the Article 370 move.

In the past one-and-a-half years, he has found it difficult to ends meet. “If my two sons hadn’t found some work, things would have been pretty tough for me,” says Awan, a resident of Salamabad village. He adds that it was difficult for him to support even his daughter who passed Class 12 board exams last year.

Cross-border trade was a ray of hope for the likes of Awan, and especially those who lost their farmlands for the construction of a Trade Facilitation Centre (TFC) at Salamabad in Uri.

In September 2008, India and Pakistan announced the formal start of trade from October 21. In Uri sector, from the beginning of the activity till it stopped, traders have provided 92,000 job days to labourers with daily wages of Rs 700-750 — much higher than the Rs 250-300 offered in government schemes.

According to official figures, there were 99 registered labourers — all Uri residents — who used to get their wages from traders. The latter created a fund for that purpose to ensure proportionate contribution. Then there were the unregistered labourers who would earn a minimum Rs 600-Rs 800 a day.

The job was to load and unload goods on to vehicles used for the trade of 21 items mutually agreed upon, including embroidery, spices, fresh fruits and vegetables. On a good day, a labourer would even earn Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000. Over 246 firms at Salamabad were registered with the government for trade activities that happened four days a week.

Official statistics show there has been export worth Rs 3,118 crore and import of Rs 2,709 crores via Salamabad from October 21, 2008 to March 7, 2019. Cross-LoC trade was also conducted from Chakkan-da-Bagh in Jammu.

Like Awan, Haji Mohammad Shafi Wathloo, a 45-year-old resident of Uri town, is elated that the guns have fallen silent. A trader, Wathloo believes the ceasefire means people along LoC will “at least live a life”.

Trader Haji Mohammad Shafi Wathloo was involved in cross-LoC trade. (Ubeer Naqushbandi)

“The raining mortars, gunshots, bombs and all those horrific sounds. One could not even have a good night’s sleep. It was horrific,” Wathloo, who was involved in cross-border trade, says. “Even during a lull, people were afraid that an odd bullet or a shell may hit them. It was beaten into our heads.”

Wathloo thinks that both countries should come forward to resume trade. “People on both sides have suffered. Trade should begin. Importantly, if there is an opportunity for people to earn their livelihood, why deprive them of it?” Wathloo asks.

Divisional commissioner Kashmir Padurang Kondbarao Pole says there is no fresh development on the trade front. “Not yet; will surely share…if any such development (on cross-LoC trade and bus service) is taking place.”

Ubeer Naqushbandi is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar

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